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
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
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).
Although the case involves the use of drugs, how the high court
resolves the matter could have an impact on a wide array of
religious groups in the United States that depend on a robust
defense of religious liberty to practice their faith free of
government interference. If the nation's drug laws are found to
trump religious protections, other laws might also be applied in
ways that substantially erode religious freedom, legal analysts say.
On the other hand, if religion may be invoked to easily bypass
the nation's criminal laws, that could greatly complicate and
undermine federal law-enforcement efforts, analysts say.
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
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.
When US narcotics agents discovered this, they confiscated the
group's supply of the sacramental tea as an illegal drug and barred
them from importing any more from Brazil. The group sued, claiming
the government was infringing on their religious rights by blocking
a fundamental aspect of their religious worship and threatening to
prosecute them should they continue to use the sacramental tea.
A federal judge and federal appeals court agreed with the group
and issued a preliminary injunction against the government. The
court ordered the government to accommodate the UDV members by
allowing them a religious exemption from the drug laws. The courts
ruled that such actions were necessary under RFRA.
In appealing to the Supreme Court, the Bush administration argues
that the government has a compelling interest in the uniform
enforcement of the nation's drug laws.
Congress 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. …