Hallucinogenic Tea Case Tests Boundaries Of Religious Freedom

A small Brazil-based religious group that uses a mildly hallucinogenic tea during its ceremonies has sparked a battle over the limits of religious freedom that reached the Supreme Court Nov. 1.

The high court heard oral arguments in the case, and several of the justices appeared to be grappling with a core conflict presented by the legal challenge: Should the nation’s drug laws trump the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom?

Members of O Centro Espirita Bene­fi­ciente Uniao do Vegetal (UDV) seek the right to import hoasca tea, which they drink during services. The federal government has blocked the move since the tea contains the drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is a controlled substance.

Arguing on behalf of the Bush administration, Deputy Solicitor General Edwin S. Kneedler insisted that allowing the church to import the drug would “change the status quo” and threaten the nation’s anti-drug efforts.

But several justices seemed skeptical of the claim, pointing out that Congress passed a law allowing the Native American Church to use peyote in its rituals, even though it is an illegal drug.

“Peyote seems to have been administered without the sky falling in,” remarked Justice Stephen Breyer.

Supporters of the church argue that a 1993 federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, gives UDV the right to use the tea. The Supreme Court has ruled that the Act cannot be applied to states, but it is still binding on the federal government. It requires government to show a “compelling state interest” before infringing on religious freedom.

Nancy Hollander, a New Mexico attorney, argued on behalf of UDV that the government had not met the compelling-interest standard. She asserted that allowing importation of a small amount of tea would not seriously undermine anti-drug efforts.

A decision in Gonzalez v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal is expected by July.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State joined a broad coalition of groups supporting the church in a friend-of-the-court brief.

AU and the other groups contend that the government’s position is too broad and would eviscerate the federal religious freedom statute.

“The Government’s challenges to the UDV’s request for an injunction conflict with [federal law’s] text and logic and, if accepted, would seriously undercut the statute’s purpose of protecting the religious conscience of all faith,” observes the brief.

Other groups signing the brief include Agudath Israel of America; the American Civil Liberties Union; the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty; the Christian Legal Society; the First Church of Christ, Scientist; the General As­sembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Liberty Counsel; the National Association of Evangelicals; the Sikh Coalition and the Union for Reform Judaism.