The former Oklevueha Native American Church of Hawaii saw its legal battle against the Department of Justice end yesterday as the Supreme Court of the United States chose not to hear an appeal to protect their use of cannabis as sacramental.
The origins of the case started around a cannabis seizure affecting one of the church members in 2009. After the incident, church Founder Michael Rex Mooney, AKA Raging Bear, and the rest of the congregation at the time legally known as Oklevueha Native American Church of Hawaii INC filed complaints against the federal officials and noted the threat of federal prosecution for cultivating, possessing, and distributing cannabis was “exceedingly real.”
The six-member SCOTUS decided to stand with the decision of the left-leaning Ninth District Court of Appeals. Much of the case involved the interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In the Ninth District Court opinion, Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain noted that even if the church’s cannabis use was protected under the RFRA and that, “no rational trier of fact could conclude on the record that a prohibition of cannabis use imposed a ‘substantial burden’ on plaintiffs’ exercise of religion.”
The Oklevueha are technically considered a self-described “peyotism” that considers cannabis to be an additional spiritual sacrament. Mooney had also noted previously in the case that the church, “honor and embrace all entheogenic naturally occurring substances, including ayahuasca, cannabis, iboga, kava, psilocybin, San Pedro, soma, teonanacatyl, Tsi-Ahga, and many others.” This fact was also specifically referenced by Judge O’Scannlain in the court’s opinion.
From the outside looking in, the court’s decision seems to have come down to a comment by the church during this case when they said, “peyote is the significant sacrament.” Noting that they consume cannabis “in addition to and in the substitute for their primary entheogenic sacrament, peyote.” O’Scannlain uses this as the point from where he really dives in on things.
“They make no claim that peyote is unavailable or that cannabis serves a unique religious function… Put simply, nothing in the record demonstrates that a prohibition on cannabis forces Mooney and Oklevueha to choose between obedience to their religion and criminal sanction, such that they are being ‘coerced to act contrary to their religious beliefs,’” said O’Scannlain.
Church Attorney Michael Andrew Glenn has a different view on the subject.
“Mr. Mooney and the Native American Church of Hawaii are very disappointed that the Supreme Court did not grant us certiorari,” he said. “We feel the Ninth Circuit opinion was made in error, and a lot of legal scholars agree.”
Glenn went on to note how he and the church found it ironic the very law they were suing under, the RFRA, was created as a specific result of the courts denying native American spirituality rights. They also believed the Ninth Circuit got it wrong when they said no burden could be found in the exercising of the religion under cannabis prohibition because peyote could be used in substitute of cannabis. While true according to Glenn, the court did not give credence to the fact they are completely separate sacraments.
“It’s like because they can do peyote, they aren’t harmed by not being able to use cannabis, which is insane. The Ninth Circuit read into something that’s not there, they actually define the exercising of religion,” said Glenn.
Meaning that by the Ninth Circuit declaring that there was no interference with the religious practice by the church’s cannabis use not being protected, they, in fact, were dictating the proper practice of the religion, or exactly what the RFRA was designed to help avoid.
At one point Mooney, at the request of his father, went to Hawaii to train with Reverend Roger Christie of the THC Ministry. On June 19, 2000, Roger received a license to perform marriages in the State of Hawaii, becoming the nation’s first licensed cannabis sacrament minister. From there he founded the ministry where he hosted Mooney for a few months as a core member of the team, Christie noted: “he had keys to the building.”
Despite Mooney’s roots at one of the greatest cannabis spirituality encampments in the western hemisphere, he was unable to prove it a necessary sacrament for him as a religious practitioner. According to Allen, Mooney plans to attempt the case again in a state where adult use laws have passed.
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