Justice

How The First Church Of Cannabis Plans To Test Indiana’s New Religious Freedom Law

CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

For thousands of years, religious people have gathered together in houses of worship to sing songs, celebrate sacred rituals, and lift up prayers to God(s) on high. And on July 1, a new religious group in Indiana intends to do just that — but with a lot more emphasis on the “high” part.

A little more than a month from now, the newly-formed First Church of Cannabis is scheduled to hold its first official gathering, where worshippers plan to test the limits of new religious freedom laws by “filling up” the sanctuary with marijuana smoke while observing a sacrament.

“It’s going to be a standard service,” Bill Levin, the group’s leader and self-proclaimed “Grand Poohba and Minister of Love,” told ThinkProgress. He explained the ceremony will last around 45 minutes, complete with music and teachings, but will conclude with an unusual benediction: “At the end of the service … we will enjoy cannabis, because it’s how we enjoy life.”

Recreational marijuana is, of course, illegal in Indiana. But Levin believes the service will be allowed under the state’s new version of the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA), which reaffirmed and arguably expanded existing legal protections for religious groups. The Grand Poohba founded the Church after he heard about the controversial legislation, which sparked a national outcry when it was revealed that it could allow religious groups and individuals the right to discriminate against others — especially LGBT people. Levin also opposed the legislation, but the same day it was signed into the law, the state approved his request to register his Church as a tax-exempt religious institution.

“The religious freedom law is, if you have a religion, the government will not impede upon your right for that religion,” Levin, a longtime advocate for the legalization of marijuana, told MSNBC. “And as far as I’m concerned, I have a religion [where I] religiously smoke cannabis and I celebrate life.”

Levin’s unique brand of evangelism is resonating powerfully with his rapidly-growing flock. Around 32,000 people have “liked” the Church’s official Facebook page, and more than $10,000 has been donated to the group’s online fundraising campaign, which is collecting donations to lease a worship space and eventually build the “first HEMP TEMPLE.” The Church also has a list of 12 founding principles, asking followers (who refer to themselves as “Cannaterians”) to refrain from “trolling” on the internet and insisting “don’t be an asshole.”

“We need a modern religion for a modern day,” Levin said.

The budding tradition’s most influential attribute, however, is likely its final one:

“Cannabis, ‘the Healing Plant’ is our sacrament,” the website reads. “It brings us closer to ourselves and others. It is our fountain of health, our love, curing us from illness and depression. We embrace it with our whole heart and spirit, individually and as a group.”

Despite the Church’s fierce convictions, existing federal legal precedent makes it unclear whether their holy toking will be permitted under Indiana’s RFRA. The federal version of RFRA was created in response to a case where Native Americans were denied the right to smoke peyote during a religious ritual, but courts have thus far resisted First Amendment claims from new religious groups that focus primarily on drug use. In 2010, a federal circuit court dismissed the case of United States v. Quaintance, where the Church of Cognizance argued that their consumption of marijuana was authorized under RFRA because they consider cannabis both a deity and a sacrament. The panel of judges ruled the group had failed to prove that their beliefs were “sincerely held” in a religious sense, concluding that their motives were more business-oriented than spiritually-centered.

But that was 2010, before the Supreme Court broadened its interpretation of RFRA to grant craft giant Hobby Lobby the ability to opt out of aspects of the Affordable Care Act. That decision has led to several district courts overturning previous decisions that struck down RFRA defenses, reigniting old debates over the nature of religious liberty. More importantly, even though LGBT rights advocates successfully lobbied to amend Indiana’s RFRA to prohibit discrimination, the state’s law is still possibly broader than its federal cousin, potentially paving the way for the Church of Cannabis to win approval for their rituals.

For the time being, Levin told ThinkProgress he was more concerned with organizing his service than looming legal battles. Still, he doesn’t hide the fact that the timing of the ritual — July 1 — is strategic: it’s the same day Indiana’s RFRA is scheduled to take effect. He added that he doesn’t expect the service to be impeded, but if he gets legal pushback, he’s willing to muster a “team of lawyers” to fight for his new religion’s freedoms.

“Will I take this to the highest court of the land? You betcha,” Levin said.