Today, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously defended religious liberty in a critical case in which the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations joined with a broad and diverse coalition of religious groups as “friends of the court.” In the first religious liberty opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, the high court rejected arguments by the government that it could not afford to grant a religious exemption from drug control laws for a religious group’s use of an herbal tea in its ritual practices.
The case, Gonzales v. O Centro Espirito, involves a sect, known as Uniao Do Vegetal (UDV) or the Union of the Plants, which preaches a brand of “Christian spiritualism” that combines traditional Brazilian beliefs with contemporary Christian teachings. A “central and essential” tenet of the UDV faith is a belief that hoasca, a tea containing the illegal hallucinogenic drug diemethyltryptamine (DMT), is sacred and that its use connects members to God. UDV sued the government in U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico and received a preliminary injunction preventing the confiscation of imported hoasca or the arrest of any UDV members using the drug while the district court trial was pending.
The Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit upheld the injunction and the Supreme Court ruled similarly today. UDV claimed that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) exempts them from any laws prohibiting the importation and use of hoasca. RFRA states that no federal law shall “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless the government proves the law furthers a “compelling governmental interest” and that it has been implemented in a way that is “least restrictive” to religious practices. The federal government countered that the courts cannot grant UDV an exception to the nation’s drug laws — in this case the 1970 Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which prohibits the use of DMT for any purpose. Furthermore, the government argued, the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances (to which the United States is a party) required the government “to prevent and combat abuse of [psychotropic] substances and the illicit traffic to which it gives rise.” The Court rejected all of the government’s contentions.
The UOJCA, and its coalition partners, filed briefs with the Supreme Court defending RFRA and its application to this religious practice and the Controlled Substances Act. UOJCA public policy director Nathan J. Diament issued the following statement reacting to the Court’s ruling:
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations joins with all those who cherish religious liberty in applauding the Supreme Court’s unanimous recognition that we are a nation of diverse faiths and that different faiths require different accommodations for their religious practice. Congress recognized this when it enacted RFRA with broad bipartisan support. Thanks to Chief Justice Roberts and his colleagues, if the United States wishes to restrict this religious activity, it must return to court and concretely demonstrate that its compelling interest in drug enforcement cannot allow any exception in this kind of context. That is the right result under our First Amendment freedoms.