SCOTUS up angle1Written by Don Byrd

Via Religion Clause, on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the appeal of a Hawaii church that “receives communion through cannabis.” Church leader Michael Rex “Raging Bear” Mooney filed suit after a church member had his cannabis seized. Mooney argued that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (among other provisions of law), the government may not enforce federal drug laws against the church for this religious use.

The 9th Circuit rejected this claim, asserting that “no rational trier of fact could conclude on this record that a prohibition of cannabis use imposes a ‘substantial burden.'” The Court noted that the church considers peyote a significant sacrament, that cannabis is used only “in addition to” or as a “substitute” for peyote. Under those circumstances, the court emphasized, the denial of cannabis, when peyote is readily available, cannot be a burden on religious exercise substantial enough to trigger RFRA’s protections.

The Supreme Court’s denial of the request for hearing leaves that 9th Circuit ruling in place.

Meanwhile, in Indiana, an appeals court last week heard the RFRA claims of a defendant convicted of failing to pay state taxes. Rodney Tyms-Bey argues that the taxes are a burden on his religious exercise and should be excused because of Indiana’s relatively new and controversial RFRA law. The trial court rejected his claim.

I point to both of these stories to make the case, once again, that RFRA statutes do not amount to a broad or automatic exemption from laws that defendants claim are contrary to their religious beliefs. RFRA requires courts to analyze claims on a case-by-case basis and to consider the government’s interest in enforcing the law. When they do, courts regularly rule against the claims of the religious objector, as federal courts did in this Hawaii cannabis case, and the Indiana state trial court did in denying the RFRA claims of a tax avoider.

Critics of RFRA often portray the law inaccurately as a get-out-of-jail-free card, or a license to discriminate for those who claim a religious objection. But the structure of most RFRA laws, and the reality of its application in courts across the country, tell a much different story.

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

[UPDATE: This post has been edited to correct a mistake in which I inadvertently conflated two RFRA cases involving Hawaii churches. My sincere apologies for my confusion.]