Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a critical case involving the free exercise of religion in which the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations joined with a broad and diverse coalition of religious groups as “friends of the court.”
The case, Gonzales v. O Centro Espirito, involves a sect, known as Uniao Do Vegetal (UDV) or the Union of the Plants, 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. UDV claims 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 counters 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 argues, the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances (to which the United States is a party) requires the government “to prevent and combat abuse of [psychotropic] substances and the illicit traffic to which it gives rise.”
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 issued the following statement after arguments in the case concluded:
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations joins with all those who cherish religious liberty in urging the Supreme Court to recognize 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. The Court ought to defer to Congress’ wishes here and make the United States demonstrate that its compelling interest in drug enforcement cannot allow any exception in this kind of context.