The illegal sacramental tea

hallucinogenic drugsIllegal narcotics, a 130-member church that likes to do those drugs and a Supreme Court with a history of restricting drugs all make for an interesting law/religion story that will certainly divide traditional political alliances in all sorts of interesting ways.

The American branch of the Brazilian church O Centro Espírita Beneficiente União do Vegetal wants to import a sacramental hallucinogenic tea — banned from the U.S. because it is a Schedule I drug — that is key to the church’s rituals. Rather than affecting First Amendment law, the case deals with a federal law that gives greater protections to religious exercise than what the Supreme Court had previously given.

Here’s the essence of the issue, as written by The New York Times:

WASHINGTON, Nov. 1 — The Bush administration tried to persuade the Supreme Court on Tuesday that federal narcotics policy should trump the religious needs of members of a small South American church who want to import a hallucinogenic tea that is central to their religious rituals.

Two lower federal courts have barred the government from seizing the sacred drink, known as hoasca tea, which is brewed from indigenous Brazilian plants that do not grow in the United States. The tea’s hallucinogenic effect comes from a chemical, dimethyltryptamine, usually known as DMT, which occurs naturally in the plants and is listed as a Schedule I banned substance in the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The Supreme Court refused last year to lift the preliminary injunction issued by the federal district court in Albuquerque. But the justices did agree to hear the administration’s appeal. As the major church-state clash of the court’s new term, the case has drawn the attention of mainstream religious groups, including the Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals and the American Jewish Committee.

The article is clearly by a legal writer, not a religion writer (Linda Greenhouse has been covering the Supreme Court for nearly 30 years) and for that, it suffers a bit (though it is a great piece of legal journalism). We don’t learn much about the church or why and how it uses the hallucinogenic tea (some answers can be found here).

The American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the National Association of Evangelicals, among other groups, are filing briefs in support of the church, which makes me wonder, what is their stake in this matter?

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  • Darrell Grizzle

    “what is their stake in this matter?”

    Ummm . . . freedom of religion???

  • Lucas Sayre

    Well, Catholics have been allowed to give out wine (albeit in very small doses) to minors…

    But this issue ultimately is a legal issue and religion is a sidenote to it, so it was proper for a legal reporter to have covered it.

    The case will turn on the language of the statute. Before anyone opines on their desired outcome of this case, they should read the relevant portion of the statute, which should only be a few lines long.

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  • tmatt


    What you said. Amen.

  • Bartholomew

    I just found this amusing quote:$562

    “From January 1919, American Catholic priests were required to obtain authorisation from the Federal administration to buy Communion wine. Prohibition had begun. During 12 long years, the production, trade and consumption of alcoholic drinks was totally prohibited in the United States. Very soon, there mushroomed numerous, ostensibly Christian, sects for the purpose of celebrating, with administrative dispensation, the Holy Communion in both kinds. Observers noted the remarkable zeal which the faithful showed in taking consecrated wine. …”

    I can see the headlines aldready: “Mushrooms cause Mushrooming of Sects”.