In a case with potential important significance for minority religious groups in America, the US Supreme Court this week takes up a clash between the nation's drug laws and a statute protecting religious liberty.
At issue in the case set for oral argument Tuesday is the scope of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The law requires the federal government to justify any measure that substantially burdens a person's ability to practice his or her religion.
But what happens when a religious ceremony requires consumption of a drug outlawed under the Controlled Substances Act? That is the essence of the dispute in a case called Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal (UDV).
Although the case involves the use of drugs, how the high court resolves the matter could have an impact on a wide array of religious groups in the United States that depend on a robust defense of religious liberty to practice their faith free of government interference. If the nation's drug laws are found to trump religious protections, other laws might also be applied in ways that substantially erode religious freedom, legal analysts say.
On the other hand, if religion may be invoked to easily bypass the nation's criminal laws, that could greatly complicate and undermine federal law-enforcement efforts, analysts say.
The case involves a religious sect of 130 members based in New Mexico. The group, adherents of the Brazil-based religion UDV, believes the use of sacramental tea in its ceremonies helps them connect with God. Consumption of the tea is the central ritual act of their faith. Some analysts liken it to the consecration of wine at a Roman Catholic mass or serving unleavened bread at a Passover Seder.
The problem is that the tea, made from two sacred plants found in the Amazon region of Brazil, contains a hallucinogenic substance banned in the US.
When US narcotics agents discovered this, they confiscated the group's supply of the sacramental tea as an illegal drug and barred them from importing any more from Brazil. The group sued, claiming the government was infringing on their religious rights by blocking a fundamental aspect of their religious worship and threatening to prosecute them should they continue to use the sacramental tea.
A federal judge and federal appeals court agreed with the group and issued a preliminary injunction against the government. The court ordered the government to accommodate the UDV members by allowing them a religious exemption from the drug laws. The courts ruled that such actions were necessary under RFRA.
In appealing to the Supreme Court, the Bush administration argues that the government has a compelling interest in the uniform enforcement of the nation's drug laws.
Congress determined that a categorical ban on this hallucinogenic substance was required to help protect the health and safety of Americans, including the followers of UDV, from detrimental effects, government lawyers say. "Religious motivation does not change the science," writes Solicitor General Paul Clement in his brief to the court.
The government also argues that a categorical ban is needed to prevent diversion of the drug into America's illicit recreational drug market. And it is necessary to comply with international treaties banning all trafficking in narcotics and psychotropic substances.
Lawyers for the religious group counter that Congress passed RFRA after it passed the Controlled Substances Act and that since RFRA applies to all federal law, it requires the government to make religious accommodations even from criminal drug laws when individual accommodations are deemed appropriate after a careful case-by-case review.
For example, Congress has created an exemption for the religious use of peyote by native Americans, they say.
"The government's successful accommodation of the sacramental use of peyote, also a [banned] Schedule I substance, belies its claim that such substances require a categorical ban, even for religious use," Nancy Hollander, an Albuquerque lawyer representing the UDV, writes in her brief.
Ms. Hollander accuses the government of playing fast and loose with the facts in claiming there are adverse health effects to the group's use of sacramental tea. She says the only study of sacramental tea use "found no significant health concerns."
On the potential for diversion for recreational drug use, she says use of the tea is tightly controlled during ceremonies, and consumption of the tea outside such ceremonies is considered sacrilegious. Hollander adds that there hasn't been a US conviction for attempting to traffic the hallucinogenic substance contained in the tea in 27 years.
She says the government's argument concerning international treaties is also flawed. The treaty doesn't apply to sacramental tea, she says, and other treaties signed by the US require signatory governments to respect and accommodate religious practices.
Although the New Mexico sect has only 130 members, the case has attracted the attention of a large cross section of religious groups expressing concern about the case. They include the Baptist Joint Committee, the National Association of Evangelicals, Agudath Israel of America, the Minaret of Freedom Institute, the Sikh Coalition, and The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, which publishes this newspaper.
In an appendix to a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the UDV, the Christian Science Church said in part: "Although The First Church of Christ, Scientist, supports the legal arguments made in this brief, neither the church nor the theology of Christian Science supports the use of drugs or any other material substances as an aid or pathway to spirituality or a greater understanding of God."