Tea with God: Supreme Court Ponders Legality of Church's Ritual Use of Hallucinogenic Sacrament

By Leaming, Jeremy | Church & State, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Tea with God: Supreme Court Ponders Legality of Church's Ritual Use of Hallucinogenic Sacrament


Leaming, Jeremy, Church & State


Jeffrey Bronfman was drawn to Brazil's rain forests because of his commitment to ecological preservation.

But on a 1990 trip to help form an environmental association, Bronfman discovered a religion that sparked a spiritual side of his life he had never known. The faith is called O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal (UDV), which in Portuguese means "Central Beneficial Spirit United from the Plants." It would so move him that he would make numerous trips from his home in Santa Fe, N.M., back to Brazil to learn Portuguese and study doctrine.

A few years later, Bronfman, a member of a wealthy family that once owned Seagram's liquor distillery, had become so proficient in Portuguese and knowledgeable of the religion's ways, which intertwines Christianity with indigenous beliefs, that its highest authorities made him a mestre, meaning a member of the church's clergy.

With the UDV's blessing, Bronfman started conducting rituals with a small group of people in Santa Fe and later created a branch of the church there.

Bronfman's efforts to practice his newfound religion, however, would eventually come to a tumultuous halt. A central part of the church's rituals is the use of hoasca tea, which includes a hallucinogenic drug that the federal government has outlawed.

Not long after launching the UDV in Santa Fe, Bronfman found himself in federal court fighting the threat of criminal prosecution pursuant to the Controlled Substances Act. That legal fight has drawn national and international attention and pits two federal laws against one another.

One law is aimed at protecting the free exercise of religion, the other at fighting the spread of illegal drugs. The case has reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where it could produce greater understanding of the breadth of religious liberty in the nation.

UDV members believe hoasca, when used under the guidance of UDV leaders, produces spiritual awakening. Indeed, it was Bronfman's use of the tea in his 1990 trip to Brazil that profoundly affected him.

"It was on that trip that I first attended a UDV ceremony and drank the tea," Bronfman stated, in an affidavit before a U.S. district court in 2000. "I was very moved and inspired by what I witnessed."

Bronfman said the plants that produce the tea "sprang originally from the graves of revered historical figures and, therefore, embody the spirits of those individuals. The tea enables members to achieve heightened states of spiritual enlightenment."

He explained, "Through the union of the plants (in the ritual preparation of the tea), a sacrament is created that permits the possibility (under the direction of a trained mestre) of actual communion with God."

It is the use of the tea, however, that has proven troublesome to federal authorities. Dimethyltryptamine, commonly know as DMT, is the hallucinogenic compound that occurs in the creation of the hoasca.

In May 1999, according to Bronfman, "twenty to thirty armed officers accompanied by local and state police officers" entered UDV's offices and seized a substantial quantity of hoasca. The warrant presented to Bronfman stated that the government officials were also looking for drug paraphernalia.

"It was evident," Bronfman later testified, "that they had no idea we were a church and that the tea, for us, was not a drug, but a religious sacrament."

Bronfman quickly filed suit in federal court citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a 1993 federal law that forbids government to "substantially burden" the free exercise of religion, unless it can prove a "compelling" interest in doing so.

U.S. District Judge James A. Parker issued a preliminary injunction against the federal government, concluding that officials had failed to satisfy the compelling interest test. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on two occasions refused to invalidate Parker's action. …

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