WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court (search) agreed Monday to consider whether a church in New Mexico can continue using hallucinogenic tea in its religious services.
At issue is whether use of the tea, which contains a drug banned under the federal Controlled Substances Act (search), is protected under freedom of religion laws. The Bush administration contends the tea is illegal and use of it potentially dangerous for church members.
Justices will review a lower court ruling that allowed the Brazil-based church — O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal (search) — to import and use the hoasca tea while the case was appealed. Arguments will be heard in the court's next term beginning in October.
The church, which has about 140 members in the United States and 8,000 worldwide, says the herbal brew is a central sacrament in its religious practice, which is a blend of Christian beliefs and traditions rooted in the Amazon basin.
The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, voting 8-5 that the church had shown a "substantial likelihood of success" in winning religious exemption, rejected the government's request to temporarily ban use of the drug at the church, whose U.S. operations are based in Santa Fe, N.M.
In its Supreme Court appeal of that order, the Bush administration argued it has a "compelling interest" to prevent an illegal market for the drug. The government also said the 1971 U.N. Convention on Psychotropic Substances bars importation of the drug in the tea — dimethyltryptamine — except for research. The U.S. is among more than 160 signatories to that treaty.
Allowing the tea use "directly impairs the effectiveness of international narcotics law-enforcement efforts, frustrates intergovernmental cooperation, and weakens the government's ability to insist that other countries adhere to their treaty obligations," the government filing states.
Lawyers for the church countered that tea use by law-abiding citizens practicing their religious beliefs does not constitute drug abuse or put worshippers' health in danger.
"The record does not support the government's alarmist arguments that denial of the petition will result in physical or psychological harm" to church members or illegal drug trafficking outside the church, the filings state.
In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that states have a right to criminalize the use of peyote, which contains the hallucinogen mescaline, rejecting a challenge by Native Americans seeking a religious exemption under the First Amendment's free exercise clause.
"We have never held that an individual's religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the state is free to regulate," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority. "The record of more than a century of our free exercise jurisprudence contradicts that proposition."
The case is Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, 04-1084.