Ayahuasca Church Wins Temporary Victory in Supreme Court 12/17/04

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Members of a New Mexico congregation will have a psychedelic Christmas for the first time in six years thanks to a December 8 US Supreme Court ruling. The Santa Fe-based US branch of the Brazilian Union of the Vegetable church is in a battle with the federal government over whether it can use an hallucinogenic Amazonian concoction called ayahuasca. The Supreme Court lifted a temporary stay issued two weeks ago to block the church from using its sacrament while it decides whether the Union of the Vegetable can use it permanently.

Jurema rootbark, a component of ayahuasca tea
courtesy Erowid
Nancy Hollander of Albuquerque, the attorney representing the Union of the Vegetable, told the Associated Press that church members would partake to celebrate at Christmas. "They're delighted," she said. "They're so thrilled that they can celebrate Christmas for the first time since 1998. We cherish our freedom of religion in this country and these people had been denied that."

The church's battle with the government began with a 1999 raid on the church's Santa Fe property where agents seized 30 gallons of ayahuasca tea used in religious ceremonies. Ayahuasca is verboten under the Controlled Substances Act because it contains DMT, the Justice Department argued.

The church, whose US branch is headed by Seagram's Whiskey heir Jeffrey Bronfman, promptly sued in federal court, complaining that the government had violated its rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The church's use of ayahuasca was analogous to the use of peyote by members of the Native American Church, which is allowed under federal law, the church retorted.

While the Bush administration contended ayahuasca is illegal and dangerous, Hollander begged to differ. The concoction is not only safe, she said, but for church members it "is sacred and their sacramental use of hoasca connects them to God."

The courts have so far supported the Union of the Vegetable. The church won a preliminary injunction in federal district court barring the government from interfering with its ayahuasca ceremonies, and last year a three-judge panel of the US 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling. The government asked for the full 10th Circuit to review the decision, and two weeks ago asked for and received a temporary stay from Justice Stephen Breyer, which would have blocked the church from conducting its ceremonies. The December 8 decision by the full Supreme Court undid Breyer's stay, thus allowing the church to celebrate the holidays in the manner in chooses. Meanwhile, the 10th Circuit continues to consider the case.

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Issue #367 -- 12/17/04

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