Freedom to drink the tea

hallucinogenic teaHow significant was Tuesday’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling — allowing a New Mexico congregation to use a hallucinogenic tea in its religious rituals — in establishing precedent in religious-freedom law? If you read Wednesday’s Washington Post article, you would come away thinking the impact was minimal, but thankfully, the Internet gives us other sources of information. (GetReligion’s original post on the issue is here.)

Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times grasps the significance in the second paragraph of her report on the ruling:

With an opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the decision was one of the most significant applications of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 13-year-old federal statute that requires the government to meet a demanding test before it can enforce a law in a way that creates a substantial obstacle to religious observance.

That’s about it, though. The rest of the article, along with the Post article, focuses mostly on how the issue came before the Supreme Court and on Chief Justice John Roberts’ writing style (it’s refreshingly conversational and lacking in numerous footnotes, by the way).

The Los Angeles Times places the “victory for religious freedom” theme front and center and quotes K. Hollyn Hollman, the Baptist Joint Committee’s general counsel, who said the decision was “good news for religious freedom and the continuing vitality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

For more background on the ruling’s significance, turn to this Christianity Today article published this morning, which quotes several legal types in religious-freedom organizations. (Disclosure: a coauthor of this piece, Sarah Pulliam, is indeed my younger sister.)

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  • Peter Humphrey

    I can see why this might be a huge case for relgious freedom, but I’m wondering if it’s implications might be exagerated by the people quoted in the ‘Christianity Today’ article. The promise of relgious freedom for decades to come? Maybe . . . I’m no expert in these matters.

  • Michael

    I wondered the same thing, Peter. The teeth of RFRA were yanked out of the Supreme Court when they said it didn’t apply to state governments. What’s left is lots of cases brought by prisoners and the usual fact-pattern here. Given the special status religion already has in many federal laws, it’s hard to imagine there are lots of application. But the Becket people are very creative and who knows what they can come up with.

    Despite its intentions, RFRA has been used most effectively by minority religions and hasn’t been used by majority religions that often.

  • Bartholomew

    I found a great quote – can’t vouch for its veracity, though:

    From January 1919, American Catholic priests were required to obtain authorisation from the Federal administration to buy Communion wine. Prohibition had begun. During twelve 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.

  • Matt

    I’ve been a little worried over the years that the Nanny-State would ban incense (Cal-OSHA regs) and candles (fire codes) in churches, as well as communion for children (those damnable drinking-age restictions). Hopefully, there is no reason to fear now.

  • G Golem

    As a cancer patient I’m astonished at the contrast between the ruling and against a drug used for medical purposes by the critical and terminally ill and one for a drug used for religious purposes.

    The standard used in the marijuana ruling is theraputic value. The court, in its arrogance and ignorance, judged the drug had no theraputic value and that federal authoritarianism trumped states rights. That decision should have been a decision for doctors and scientists, not lawyers.

    Is there a similar standard in religous usage? Does this hallucinogenic tea actually bring one closer to the divine? Of course there’s no standard about anything connected to the efficacy of religion. It’s just blind superstition that has to be humored by the rest of society so that the religious don’t murder us.

    I don’t use marijuana, by the way. When I was in chemotherapy, antinausea drugs I was given were compazine and haldol, two anti-psychotics, which temporarily paralyzed me and nearly killed me. At the time, these were the only drugs available other than marijuana for the treatment of nausea.