WASHINGTON (ABP) — The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether a small band of adherents of an obscure Brazilian sect living in the United States have a religious right to import hallucinogenic tea for sacramental use.
The justices agreed April 18 to hear arguments in the case of the New Mexico congregation of the Uniao do Vegetal religion, which was established in Santa Fe in 1993. It is a branch of a Brazilian religion that blends elements of Christianity and native religions.
The federal government attempted to prevent followers of the sect from importing the elements of hoasca, a tea made from a plant that contains chemicals the government considers “controlled substances.” Church members drink the tea as part of their worship rituals.
The congregation, known as the O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, then sued the government. They claimed that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act prohibits federal officials from burdening the free exercise of their religion.
Lower federal courts stopped the government from banning the hoasca importation pending the outcome of a trial in an appeals court.
But the Supreme Court, in an unusual move, agreed to a Bush administration request to hear the case before it was decided in the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has already refused twice to lift the injunction.
Administration officials claim the government has a compelling interest in banning the importation of controlled substances, therefore meeting the high standard RFRA sets for federal imposition on religious practice.
But lawyers for the church point out that the government has allowed American Indian religious groups to smoke peyote, also considered a controlled substance, as part of religious rituals.
The justices will hear the case in their 2005-2006 session, which will begin in October. It is Gonzales et al. vs. O Centro Espirita etc., et al.