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Court allows church's hallucinogenic tea
Yahoo News/USA Today
By Joan Biskupic, USA TODAY
February 22, 2006

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that adherents of a small Brazilian-based religion practicing in New Mexico may continue to use a hallucinogenic tea. The court rejected arguments by the Justice Department that the communion ritual undermines federal anti-drug law.

The court broadly interpreted the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, intended to protect people from U.S. laws that appear to be neutral but can impinge on sacramental practices. (Related item: Opinion:Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal)

Chief Justice John Roberts said in his opinion for the court that Congress sought "a workable test for striking sensible balances between religious liberty and competing ... governmental interests."

The religious society, O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, known as UDV, is a Christian Spiritist sect with origins in the Amazon rainforest.

Its U.S. branch has about 130 members in the Santa Fe area.

Adherents receive communion by drinking hoasca, a tea made from plants unique to the Amazon that contain dimethyltryptamine, which is considered a mind-altering drug under the controlled-substances law.

The case began in 1999, when U.S. Customs intercepted a shipment of hoasca. The sect sued to block the government from interfering with the shipments. Lower federal courts sided with the UDV, based on the 1993 religious-freedom law.

Lower courts rejected the administration's claim that the UDV should be stopped from using the tea based on a "compelling interest" in uniform enforcement of anti-drug law.

Roberts noted that federal law has an exception for the use of peyote by the Native American Church.

"If such use is permitted ... for hundreds of thousands of Native Americans practicing their faith," Roberts wrote, "it is difficult to see how those same findings alone can preclude any consideration of a similar exception for the 130 or so American members of the UDV who want to practice theirs."

Roberts said the long-standing exception for peyote undercuts the government's broader contention that the federal anti-drug law allows no exceptions based on religion.

Several mainstream religious and public-policy groups had supported the UDV's position. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee, praised the ruling.