International Church of Cannabis spars with liberal city — but it's not because of drugs
A weed-based church says its statue represents religious freedom. Denver wants it gone
The city of Denver is demanding the Church of Cannabis remove a statue that its co-founder says represents religious freedom and is used by its weed-smoking congregants for meditation.
"I hope the city of Denver recognizes our right to exist and our right to have this religious effigy, this representation of the freedom of religion that all Americans should have," International Church of Cannabis co-founder Steve Berke told Fox News. "Yet the city of Denver is really encapsulating the perfect example of big government passing unnecessary laws that don't protect anyone and infringing on our First Amendment rights."
The effigy at the center of the feud between the city and the smokers is called Public Defender, an eleven-foot pink android sculpture that sits in front of the church. The city has said the church must remove the sculpture because it is an encroachment on the public right of way and that neighbors sent in complaints, but the church says the artwork is central to its religion.
A city inspector reviewed the sculpture in September the day after its installation and didn't immediately raise any issues, according to Berke. Months later, in February, the city demanded the church must apply for a permit within 10 days to keep the statue in place.
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"Ten days is not enough time to receive a land use survey and engineers study all the things that we need to apply for a permit," Berke said. "So the city basically gave us a deadline that was impossible to meet."
The city later said a permit wouldn't be approved even if the Church of Cannabis applied because "the sculpture as installed does not meet minimum placement, height, and vehicle sight line criteria of the Encroachment Rules & Regulations," according to an email the city sent to Berke.
The church's neighbors have also complained that the statue blocks visibility at the corner, a Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure official told Fox News.
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"The sculpture was a gift from the artist because he wanted us to have something that defended our right to religious liberty, which we thought was amazing because we've been under attack for pretty much most of the time we've existed," Berke said.
Berke maintains the church's fight to keep the statue is a fight for religious freedom.
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Church of Cannabis' congregants regularly gather around the sculpture for a 42-second meditation reflecting on how to achieve a better version of self, an important ritual for the church, Berke told Fox News. The church, whose members are called elevationists and whose only religious tenet is the golden rule, is rated as one of the top attractions in Denver, according to Tripadvisor.
Berke said the marijuana church stimulates the local economy and brings thousands of tourists to the area as well as surrounding shops and restaurants.
"We've renovated a 125-year-old church that was an eyesore and made it gorgeous and a number one attraction as a tourist attraction in Denver," he said.
Colorado, where the governor and both U.S. senators are Democrats, was one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana. Magic mushrooms were decriminalized in Denver in 2019 and across the Centennial State in 2022.
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"So you'd think liberal city, liberal government, they'd welcome this cool new religion that is welcoming and bringing local people to the neighborhood and stimulating the economy," Berke told Fox News. "You'd think they'd love us, but they don't."
"We're showing people that if you fight for your First Amendment rights, you are defending your American liberty," he continued. "And that's a really important thing, even in left-leaning cities and states."
To watch the full interview with Berke, click here.