High court upholds rights of minority sects vs. US drug laws

American adherents of a Brazilian religious sect have won their battle to use hallucinogenic tea in their worship services.

In a unanimous ruling with major implications for minority religious groups in America, the US Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the right of religious organizations to claim exemption from certain laws that undercut their ability to practice their faith.

At issue was a clash between US drug laws - which ban the hallucinogenic substance in the sect's sacred tea - and a 1993 religious freedom law that requires the government to grant religious exemptions when possible.

Although the central issue in the case was the religious use of a banned drug, Tuesday's ruling has broader significance. It paves the way for others to win exemptions from generally applicable laws that impede their ability to worship.

The ruling has particular significance for minority religious groups whose faith includes practices and rites that are sometimes derided and ridiculed.

In upholding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in the context of the religious use of a banned drug, the justices said the government's desire for uniform drug control does not automatically trump religious considerations. Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts says RFRA requires the courts to consider how a government restriction impacts an individual's religious practice and to weigh it against the government's interest.

The legal dispute involves the American branch of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal (UDV). The group's first US branch opened in New Mexico in 1993, and today has 130 members.

A central aspect of UDV worship is consumption during tightly controlled religious ceremonies of a small quantity of sacramental tea. The tea, called hoasca, is made from plants found in Brazil's Amazon region. Group members consider the plants sacred and believe consuming the tea brings them closer to God. But any use of the tea outside the ritual ceremony is sacrilegious. The problem is that the tea contains a small amount of a naturally occurring psychoactive substance that is banned by US narcotics laws.

The current case began in May 1999, when US Customs inspectors seized three drums of sacramental tea shipped from Brazil to members in New Mexico. The agents seized the tea and told the group it would be prosecuted for drug trafficking if such imports continued.

The group filed suit in federal court claiming the government was violating their First Amendment right to freely practice their religion and their right to a religious exemption from the drug law under RFRA.

The First Amendment free-exercise claim was thrown out based on the Supreme Court's 1990 ruling that the Constitution does not mandate exemptions from generally applicable laws.

In that case the high court ruled that native Americans are subject to drug laws that ban the use of peyote even though its use may be confined to a religious purpose.

Congress responded to the 1990 ruling by passing RFRA, which attempts to restore by statute the same level of protection of religious beliefs and practices that existed under the First Amendment prior to the 1990 decision.

In addition to RFRA, Congress passed a law exempting members of the Native American church from prosecution for the religious use of peyote.

Both a federal judge and a US appeals court ruled that RFRA requires the government to explore possible religious accommodations that would allow UDV members to continue their worship without government interference.

Chief Justice Roberts cited the government's accommodation for peyote use by some native Americans as an example of how the US could carve out a religious exemption concerning an illegal drug. He said a similar accommodation that permits the UDV members to obtain and use their tea in a religious setting would not undermine drug laws.

"If such use [of peyote] is permitted in the face of the general congressional findings for hundreds of thousands of native Americans practicing their faith," Roberts writes, "those same findings alone cannot preclude consideration of a similar exception for the 130 or so American members of the UDV who want to practice theirs."

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