Church’s Hallucinogenic Tea Gets Supreme Court Review

The U.S. Supreme Court has accepted a case involving a church’s ritual use of a tea containing a hallucinogenic drug outlawed by the federal government.

In Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal, the justices will decide whether the federal government can penalize a Santa Fe, N.M., church for its use of hoasca tea. The tea contains the chemical DMT, which is barred by the Controlled Substances Act.

The Brazil-based church combines elements of Christianity and indigenous South American beliefs. A branch opened in Santa Fe in 1993. According to church mandates, members can only understand God through the consumption of hoasca tea and must use it at least twice monthly.

In 1991, the federal government seized a shipment of the tea. The church filed suit, arguing that the government’s action violated several constitutional rights, including the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. Also cited was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law that forbids government to “substantially burden” the free exercise of religion, unless it proves a “compelling” interest in doing so.

In 2003 and 2004, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the church. In a concurring opinion in the 2004 decision, Judge Michael W. McConnell wrote that the government had failed to show a compelling interest.

“Congress’s general conclusion that DMT is dangerous in the abstract,” he said, “does not establish that the government has a compelling interest in prohibiting the consumption of hoasca under the conditions presented here.”