Religious Freedoms Act Comes into Conflict with Drug Laws in Hoasca Tea Case

October 31, 2005

Source: The Christian Science Monitor

On October 31, 2005 The Christian Science Monitor reported, "In a case with potential important significance for minority religious groups in America, the US Supreme Court this week takes up a clash between the nation's drug laws and a statute protecting religious liberty. At issue in the case set for oral argument Tuesday is the scope of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The law requires the federal government to justify any measure that substantially burdens a person's ability to practice his or her religion. But what happens when a religious ceremony requires consumption of a drug outlawed under the Controlled Substances Act? That is the essence of the dispute in a case called Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal (UDV)... The case involves a religious sect of 130 members based in New Mexico. The group, adherents of the Brazil-based religion UDV, believes the use of sacramental tea in its ceremonies helps them connect with God. Consumption of the tea is the central ritual act of their faith. Some analysts liken it to the consecration of wine at a Roman Catholic mass or serving unleavened bread at a Passover Seder. The problem is that the tea, made from two sacred plants found in the Amazon region of Brazil, contains a hallucinogenic substance banned in the US... Congress [has] determined that a categorical ban on this hallucinogenic substance was required to help protect the health and safety of Americans, including the followers of UDV, from detrimental effects, government lawyers say. 'Religious motivation does not change the science,' writes Solicitor General Paul Clement in his brief to the court."