Much room for sacraments?

The New York Times reports on a dispute over the use of drugs in religious rituals:

The Bush administration tried to persuade the Supreme Court on Tuesday that federal narcotics policy should trump the religious needs of members of a small South American church who want to import a hallucinogenic tea that is central to their religious rituals.

The church is the Brazilian O Centro Espírita Beneficiente União do Vegetal (or “UDV”), which apparently has 130 members in the US. Full background on the case can be found at Religionlink; interestingly, the church’s argument is being supported by the ACLU, but opposed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which believes a religious organisation should not receive an exemption from the law. The Church itself explains that:

“União do Vegetal” literally means “the union of the plants.” Central to UDV’s. Central to UDV’s religious tradition and practice is the sacramental use of hoasca, a tea made from two plants indigenous to the Brazilian Amazon – the vine banisteriopsis caapi and a bush botanically related to the coffee plant, psychotria viridis. Religious practitioners ritually prepare the tea and consider it sacred, much as Catholics believe the wine they take at communion to be a sacrament…The sacrament imbues UDV members with a heightened spiritual awareness that permits them to experience communion with God.

The Times, meanwhile, gives the legal context:

Although the case clearly has constitutional overtones, the issue before the court concerns not the First Amendment’s protection for religious practice but rather a federal statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Congress enacted that law in 1993 to give more protection to religious exercise than the Supreme Court itself was willing to provide in a 1989 decision that rejected the claim of members of an American Indian church to a constitutional right to use peyote in religious rituals.

Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the government may not interfere with a religious practice unless it can demonstrate a “compelling” reason for doing so.

But if the UDV sacrament can be compared to the Catholic communion, there is also an earlier precedent. Back in 1989 Douglas Laycock of the University of Texas responded to the peyote dispute by asking:

Why is it that the religious use of wine was exempt everywhere during Prohibition, but the religious use of peyote is exempt in only half the states today? If Oregon may constitutionally punish the religious use of peyote, may it not also punish the religious use of wine? Could Oregon ban communion wine and require that all Christians use grape juice instead? The Supreme Court does not have to answer these questions formally; no case about wine is before it. But it should think hard about these questions, to make sure it is not suppressing a small and unfamiliar religion on the basis of principles it would not apply to a mainstream faith.

The archived website of the Peyote Foundation described the laws concerning peyote in the mid-1990s:

In Arizona, The Peyote Way Church of God and The Peyote Foundation can operate because of the exemption from prosecution is based on religious sincerity, not on race, denomination, or physical boundaries. Oregon has a similar statute with the exception of that it is specifically not applicable to the residents of correctional facilities.

Four other states have slightly more stringent requirements. Peyotists in Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Minnesota must be members of a bona fide religious organization, including the N.A.C. [Native American Church] or the American Indian Church. (Minnesota.) Some state’s statutes could legally permit a non-Native American to sit a peyote meeting if it was run by the N.A.C. Others require actual N.A.C. membership, some even of Native Americans. Unfortunately, Texas, the native habitat of the peyote cactus, has the strictest requirements for exemption from prosecution. Texas exceeds the federal guidelines by requiring that a person be not only a member of the N.A.C., but of at least 25% Native American descent.

However, although the Peyote Foundation won a court case in 1996 following a raid the year before, its website now says it has closed down “due to extreme political pressure”.

UDV was founded in 1961 by José Gabriel da Costa, and can be classed as a New Religious Movement. According to its doctrinal statement:

The UDV bases its teachings in the evolutionist principle of reincarnation, a millenary precept adopted by Eastern spirituality as well as the first Christians until the 5th century A.D.

…The UDV affirms that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is part of the divine totality and his word reveals the true path to salvation for humanity.

This means their church is open to new members, although they are rather picky:

The União do Vegetal does not advertise to recruit members…An interested person seeks out the União through its members. After an interview regarding his/her motives and personal state, the newcomer is given a comfortable examination period before deciding whether to become a member.

The church also argues that a legal victory would not make psychoactive drugs more generally available:

The accommodation being granted to the UDV is based upon its legitimacy, the history of its religious use of the hoasca tea, and the absence of evidence that it is harmful or would be diverted to illegal use. Another group wishing to utilize a psychoactive substance that is also central to their religious practice must be prepared to prove their case in court, if the government continues to maintain that it had a compelling interest in prohibiting the use of that substance. The accommodations for religious use under RFRA do not extend to “recreational use,” as the district court and appeals court opinions have made very clear. There is no “slippery slope”.

However, French libertarian Christian Michel makes the following observation:

From January 1919, American Catholic priests were required to obtain authorisation from the Federal administration to buy Communion wine. Prohibition had begun. During twelve long years, the production, trade and consumption of alcoholic drinks was totally prohibited in the United States. Very soon, there mushroomed numerous, ostensibly Christian, sects for the purpose of celebrating, with administrative dispensation, the Holy Communion in both kinds. Observers noted the remarkable zeal which the faithful showed in taking consecrated wine.

(Tipped from Get Religion)

2 Responses

  1. Richard, you may also remember that the poll tax exemption for members of religious communities led to a remarkable increase in cenobitic activity in the UK around 1988

  2. I still don’t understand why people are so afraid of drugs… of course, I’m just tired of all the darn laws in this country.

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