Indiana RFRA: Will it let people smoke pot in the name of religion?

Indiana’s First Church of Cannabis, set to hold its first service the same day the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act takes effect, could try the limits of religious protection under the new law, experts say.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters/File
In this May 2, 2015 photo, a man smokes marijuana in a pipe while people take part in a New York rally calling for marijuana to be legalized. In Indiana, the First Church of Cannabis, which has made marijuana its sacrament, is set to test the limits of the state's broadened religious protections.

To some observers, a religious organization that centers on marijuana may seem suspect.

But Indiana’s First Church of Cannabis was not only recognized by the state shortly after Gov. Mike Pence signed the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law April 2, but was also incorporated as a nonprofit by the Internal Revenue Service last week, local news outlets have reported.

Even before the church was granted tax-exempt status, experts said it represented the first of many tests for what can and can’t be done under the state’s broadened religious freedom protections, according to the Indianapolis Star. Under RFRA, the government must prove it has a compelling interest before it can curtail a religious practice.

The question in this case is whether or not the law would allow the church’s congregation to smoke pot during services, as the state prohibits both recreational and medical marijuana.

“It's not the type of plaintiff that was expected or that probably most supporters of RFRA had in mind,” Robert Katz, a professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, told the Star.

Indeed, Indiana’s RFRA, which is designed to protect religion from government infringement, passed into state law amid a nationwide debate that pit freedom of religion against the principle of nondiscrimination in the public sphere, The Christian Science Monitor’s Harry Bruinius reported.

Critics such as Apple CEO Tim Cook and other top business and political leaders spoke out against what they perceived was the law’s intention: To allow discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans, Mr. Bruinius wrote.

“These bills rationalize injustice by pretending to defend something many of us hold dear,” Mr. Cook, who is gay, wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post. “They go against the very principles our nation was founded on, and they have the potential to undo decades of progress toward greater equality.”

Governor Pence was quick to deny that the law had any such intention, and called on lawmakers to change the legislation’s language so that it would not allow businesses to discriminate when providing services.

On July 1, when RFRA takes effect, those changes will be put to the test — as, it seems, will the law’s limits in terms of religious freedom protections.

July 1 happens to be the same day that Bill Levin, “grand poobah” and minister of love of the First Church of Cannabis, intends to hold his first official service. The celebration will open with harmonica music before Mr. Levin, a libertarian and longtime marijuana advocate, begins discussing church doctrine and its 12 commandments, called the Deity Dozen, according to USA Today.

“At the end of the service … We will bless our church, bless our people, and we will spark up,” Levin said.

The new church has already built a following, with 34,000 likes on its Facebook page and nearly $11,000 in donations via GoFundMe.com, although it is unclear whether online support will fill pews. Should the matter go to court — and Levin expects at least a ticket and court date following his first service — the church is prepared to defend its religious status, practices, and sacrament.

“We are celebrating life, love, community involvement,” he told MSNBC. “We’re doing all the things that churches are supposed to do. Because we embrace the cannabis plant as our sacrament doesn’t mean we’re bad people.”

Mr. Katz, the Indianapolis University professor, told the Indianapolis Star that he doubts Levin and his followers will be able to convince a judge that his religion is legitimate, and not just an excuse for marijuana advocates to get together and smoke.

“That's mainly because these people, while they are nice and delightful, are from a legal perspective that I think most judges would view them as goofballs,” Katz told the paper.

Some, however, say the burden of proof in their case lies not with Levin but with the government — especially since Levin’s church has filed paperwork with both the state and the IRS.

“I think the government is going to have to make a tough, compelling case [against the church],” attorney and political journalist Abdul-Hakim Shabazz told MSNBC. “Bill and those guys ... they’re creating the paper trail that you need in order to say, ‘Hey, we are a legitimate religion, we are a legitimate faith. Everything we do is aboveboard.’

“I think the more they do that,” he added, “the better the chances they have of a victory.”

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