Federal court recognizes sacramental use of cannabis

Roger Christie

Rev. Roger Christie is fighting for his religious belief in sacramental cannabis use and the right to share with his congregants. Photos courtesy of Share Christie.

By Chris Conrad, WestCoastLeaf.com

WCL News — The THC Ministry church became the second non-Rastafarian church recognized by a US court to use cannabis as a sacrament on Aug. 5, 2013, when a federal judge in Hawai’i held that its founder was entitled to a defense in federal court under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The RFRA was adopted by Congress in the 1990s, then partially struck down as being unconstitutionally restrictive on state authorities. However,  it remains in effect regarding federal prosecutors.

Rev. Roger Christie, 64, has been held without bail in the Honolulu Federal Detention Center since July 8, 2010, fighting for his First Amendment religious freedom defense, ever since his arrest three years ago with the so-called “Green 14” sweep that arrested Christie and a group of his followers who used and provided cannabis to other church members. He faces federal trial for distributing cannabis to his church members for their sacramental use within their religion, much as another Christian church might provide wine to its congregants.

Judge Leslie Kabayashi had earlier ruled on July 30, 2013 that his religious beliefs as Reverend of the Religion of Jesus (THC Ministry) are sincere, which allowed him to present evidence about his sacramental use and raise a religious freedom defense at his upcoming federal. That meant that the court held as a matter of law that his personal religion was legitimate, his beliefs sincere, and the government’s action have put a substantial burden on the legitimate exercise of religion.

Christie’s church is affiliated with the Oklevueha Native American Church, which was legally recognized as using all plant medicines, including cannabis and peyote, as religious sacrament in 2006. Religions of various denominations that use cannabis sacramentally are categorized as being Cantheist religions.

The government argued at the subsequent hearing that bringing Christie to trial on charges of conspiracy to distribute marijuana was the least restrictive means and that had a compelling interest to interfere with church activities and prosecute its leaders. The court held that the sacramental use of cannabis was a legitimate and protected religious practice, so the government must now persuade a jury that the federal wish to suppress the use of marijuana is more compelling than the rights of a legitimate church to a practice its religious beliefs and that such a prosecution is the least restrictive way to enforce federal law without interfering with religious freedom. Christie must demonstrate that his church activities were sincerely intended for religious purposes and not merely serving as a cover for illegal marijuana cultivation and distribution activities.

Rev. Tom Brown of the Church of Christ, another Cantheist-style church in Arkansas, who was sentenced to five years and imprisoned during the 1990s for his own church activities, sees this as being a major breakthrough. He noted that the US v Bauer ruling stated in part, “As to the counts relating to conspiracy to distribute, possession with intent to distribute, and money laundering, the religious freedom of the defendants was not invaded. Nothing before us suggests that Rastafarianism would require this conduct. These counts stand. As to the three counts on which the appellants were convicted of simple possession, the exclusion of the religious defense was in error.” Brown notes that Christie and his co-defendants must prove that the distribution of marijuana that occurred was a part of their sincere religious exercise and establishment.

Since the church is a Christian faith, the Biblical admonition to “go forth and teach all nations” and the evangelical activities of Paul and the Apostles suggest that sharing the faith and its sacraments is a fundamental part of all Christianity-based faiths. The comparison is that many churches distribute wine to underage church members as part of their sacrament, yet they are not prosecuted for furnishing alcohol to a minor. Likewise in the US v UDV Church ruling, the importation and sharing of a controlled substance was held to be legal because it would not be distributed into the illicit market.

Brown points out that in Kikumura v Hurley, the court held that under the RFRA’s “expanded definition” of “religious exercise” a Buddist inmate’s desire to have visits by a Christian pastor, while not required by the Buddhist “system of religious belief”, was nonetheless a “protected exercise of religion”.

An online petition for Christie’s release is posted at this link for supporters to sign.  http://www.avaaz.org/en/petition/Free_Reverend_Roger_Christie_RIGHT_NOW/?kkBfAab.

An online petition for Congress to recognize all Cantheist faiths is posted online at http://www.avaaz.org/en/petition/Recognize_Cantheism_as_A_Valid_Religion_Under_The_First_Amendment/?launch.

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