Written by Don Byrd

A judge in Indiana has rejected a claim that the sacramental use of marijuana by the “First Church of Cannabis” warrants a religious accommodation from prosecution under drug laws. Applying the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the court ruled that the government has a clearly established compelling interest in enforcing drug laws that requires uniform application, without exception.

Accordingly, the court concluded, even if the church demonstrated that, for its congregants, marijuana use qualifies as religious exercise that is substantially burdened by drug laws, RFRA offers no protection in this instance. Most interesting to me in the judge’s order was his suggestion that in fact a greater threat to religious liberty could be posed by granting the plaintiff’s request than in denying it. That’s because, the judge reasoned, such an accommodation may improperly entangle law enforcement in making religious determinations.

Here is an excerpt from that portion of the order:

If some individuals are exempted, even for limited purposes, from the prohibition against using marijuana, law enforcement officers and investigators would need to make case-by-case determinations during criminal investigations whether an individual’s religious beliefs legally justify that particular use of cannabis. Law enforcement is not trained or equipped to make this type of determination as to whether an individual is or should be permitted to use cannabis based on their beliefs and is in no position to measure the sincerity of an individual’s beliefs – whether religious or not – to make this determination. 

The judge also emphasized that the church failed to adequately delineate sacramental from recreational drug use, or explain how it would distribute or safeguard the drugs.

For more on this case, see the Indy Star story. which reports that the church’s leadership previously announced its intention to appeal such a ruling.

For more on RFRA, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s RFRA Resource page.