Donate to RNS

Supreme Court Allows Sect to Use Hallucinogenic Tea

c. 2006 Religion News Service WASHINGTON _ The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday (Feb. 21) unanimously sided with members of a small New Mexico sect’s bid to use hallucinogenic tea in religious rituals. Chief Justice John Roberts, in his first religious freedom case, said the sect’s right to religious expression and practice superseded federal drug […]

c. 2006 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday (Feb. 21) unanimously sided with members of a small New Mexico sect’s bid to use hallucinogenic tea in religious rituals.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his first religious freedom case, said the sect’s right to religious expression and practice superseded federal drug control laws that were used to confiscate the tea, known as hoasca.

The court’s ruling also served as a strong endorsement of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires the government to show a “compelling interest” before it can limit religious freedom.

Roberts said the law gives courts the authority to “strike sensible balances” in weighing government regulation and religious expression.

A wide array of religious groups had watched the case closely because they said it had wide implications for the right of all groups to practice their faith without risk of government interference.

The 130-member O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao de Vegetal (UDV), says the tea that is brewed in the faith’s Brazilian homeland gives members a “heightened spiritual awareness” that allows them to communicate with God.

The tea contains the drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is banned under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act and a 1971 international treaty that bans its importation.

Roberts rejected arguments that the use of hoasca threatened the drug law, and said the “circumscribed, sacramental use” of the drug for religious purposes could be allowed.

Both Roberts and the UDV’s lawyers noted that peyote _ which also contains DMT _ has been allowed for years in Native American religious rites.

“If such use is permitted … for hundreds of thousands of Native Americans practicing their faith, it is difficult to see how those same findings alone can preclude any consideration of a similar exception for the 130 or so American members of the UDV who want to practice theirs,” Roberts wrote.

K. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel for the Washington-based Baptist Joint Committee, a religious freedom advocacy group, said the decision “is good news for religious freedom and the continuing vitality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

Roberts upheld two lower court decisions that said federal agents were wrong to confiscate the tea in 1999, and sent the case back for “further proceedings” that take his opinion into account.

Justice Samuel Alito, the newest member of the court, did not participate in arguments or the court’s decision.

In other business, the high court agreed to consider the constitutionality of late-term abortions that opponents have termed “partial-birth” abortions and President Bush has called an “abhorrent practice.”

A bill banning the procedure was passed by Congress in 2003, but federal courts in California, Nebraska and New York have struck it down because it does not contain a provision to allow the procedure if it is necessary to protect the health or life of the mother.

The case will be closely watched because it is an opportunity for Roberts, Alito and the reconfigured court to address a volatile issue long a concern to religious and other groups on both the left and the right.

MO/JL END ECKSTROM