c. 2005 Religion News Service
WASHINGTON _ Lawyers for a small Christian sect asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday (Nov. 1) to allow the importation of a hallucinogenic tea from Brazil, a move that government officials say violates federal drug laws.
The justices seemed skeptical that the government has a compelling reason to ban the sacramental hoasca tea, which is used by the 140 members of the O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao de Vegetal (UDV), mostly in New Mexico.
A 1993 law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, compels the government to allow religious practice unless it has a compelling interest not to. Supporters of the sect say the case has wide implications for the ability of all religious groups to practice their faith without risk of government interference.
Several justices asked why hoasca should be banned when peyote _ used in Native American rituals _ is allowed. “Peyote seems to have been administered without the sky falling in,” said Justice Stephen Breyer.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg added, “If the government must accommodate one, why not the other?”
At the same time, the high court appeared torn over whether the plants that are used to make the tea are banned under a 1971 international drug treaty. The treaty bans the importation of the drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is found in the hoasca tea.
UDV members say the tea, which is brewed in the religion’s Brazilian homeland, gives them a “heightened spiritual awareness” that allows them to communicate with God. UDV compares the tea with sacramental wine used in the Christian sacrament of Communion.
Nancy Hollander, the lawyer for the UDV, insisted that hoasca is not banned by the treaty, and argued that the 1993 law would allow the government to sidestep parts of the treaty in the interest of ensuring religious freedom.
“But the reason you import it is because it contains this particular substance,” which is banned, countered Justice John Paul Stevens.
The case started in 1999 when federal agents seized a shipment of hoasca in New Mexico. The UDV filed suit and won its case in federal court, a ruling that was upheld by the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Edwin Kneedler, the deputy solicitor general for the Bush administration, said the government’s “compelling interest” in limiting the use of hoasca is “uniform enforcement” of drug laws.
The use of peyote, Kneedler argued, is different because it involves the sovereign rights of Indian tribes to govern their own affairs. But with hoasca, the government has an obligation to “live up to its treaties,” he said.
But Justice Antonin Scalia, echoing Breyer, wondered aloud whether “you can make an exception without the sky falling.”
Hollander dismissed concerns that the tea would be made available to UDV outsiders or otherwise misused. “This religion protects its sacrament very seriously,” she told reporters outside the court.
Whichever way the justices rule, the court showed strong deference to the 1993 religious freedom law, which was passed by Congress in response to two court decisions in the early 1990s that were more favorable to government regulation.
A wide array of religious groups, including Mormons, Catholic bishops, Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindus and Sikhs, filed briefs at the court in favor of the UDV and the religious freedom law.
John Boyd, a lawyer for the UDV, said the group just “wants to be left alone” and has no interest in recruiting members to drink the tea or engage in drug use.
“There is no legitimate, much less compelling, interest in suppressing” religious exercise, Boyd said.
MO/PH END ECKSTROM