Landmark Religious Freedom Law at Stake in Case Being Argued Today Before the High Court
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments today in Gonzales v. O Centro Espirito Uniao Do Vegetal (UDV)¸ No. 04-1084, a case reviewing whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects a religious group from prosecution under the Controlled Substances Act for using a hallucinogenic plant as part of its spiritual practice.
""The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was adopted by Congress to ensure that the government does not interfere with religious practices absent a compelling justification,"" said Steven R. Shapiro, the National Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. ""The government's position in this case would effectively strip religion of the legal protection that Congress sought to provide.""
The ACLU filed its brief together with nearly 20 other religious and constitutional rights groups including the Liberty Counsel, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Baptist Joint Committee.
O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal (UDV) is a 130-member Christian organization that uses hoasca, a hallucinogenic plant substance, in the form of tea as a sacrament during religious ceremonies. Although its beliefs are indigenous to Brazil, the group is based in New Mexico. Because the tea contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT), prohibited under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the federal government has sought to ban its use and has threatened UDV members with prosecution.
The government has argued that granting an exception in this case would undermine its interest in the uniform enforcement of the drug laws. Not only is the government's stance in this case inconsistent with the exception that has been granted for the use of peyote in Native American rituals, it turns the Religious Freedom Restoration Act upside down by relieving the government of any obligation to prove that a particular religious exception should not be granted for compelling reasons.
""The government has once again placed drug war politics over essential freedoms,"" said Graham Boyd, director of the ACLU's Drug Law Reform Project.
Gonzales v. UDV is on appeal from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed a district court decision allowing UDV members a religious exemption from prosecution under the Controlled Substances Act. The Tenth Circuit specifically found that the government failed to show that hoasca poses a health risk to UDV members or a risk of diversion for recreational use.