Written by Don Byrd

A federal judge in Hawaii has ruled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to protect a minister charged with distributing marijuana to parishioners. Reverend Roger Christie, who has been in prison awaiting trial for 3 years, argues the use of cannabis is an expression of his religion that, because of RFRA, may not be substantially burdened by the government without a compelling government interest narrowly tailored. The judge in her ruling last week allowed the trial to go forward with Christie able to use that defense.

Mr. Christie’s attempt to win a religious freedom exemption was recently profiled in the NYTimes. Here’s a snippet:

[S]o far such exceptions have been granted to small religious communities and relatively obscure drugs: for American Indians’ use of peyote, for example, or the New Mexico church with its ayahuasca. But marijuana? That would be problematic.

“The difference is that peyote and hoasca have little or no recreational market, and that is not likely to change because they make you sick before they make you high,” Douglas Laycock, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Virginia, wrote in an e-mail in explaining why a court would be unlikely to approve of the church’s practice. “Marijuana has a huge recreational market. Diversion from religious to recreational uses, and false claims of religious use, would be major problems.”

Mr. Christie is hoping that now, as many state marijuana laws are liberalized, federal courts may allow him to argue for the sacramental needs of his ministry, where he worked full time until his arrest. First, he must convince a federal judge that his religion — or one of his religions — is not just a form of personal spirituality concocted to get stoned legally.

In the ruling last week, Judge Leslie Kabayashi found Christie’s religious beliefs as Reverend of the Religion of Jesus are sincere, allowing him to present a religious freedom defense at his trial on charges of conspiracy to distribute.