Legalization is bringing an interesting trend along with it. Across the country, churches are springing up that are making cannabis a central part of their worship.
From the perspective of these churches, cannabis represents a sacrament and a way to bring the congregation together spiritually. But many municipalities are challenging these cannabis churches, insisting they’re nothing but glorified dispensaries in disguise.
And in Indiana, where a case has been pending against the First Church of Cannabis since 2015, a judge just ruled that religious freedom protections don’t exempt churches who offer cannabis as a sacrament.
Judge Blocks Indiana’s First Church of Cannabis From Using Weed During Worship
On Friday, the First Church of Cannabis in Indiana lost a years-long lawsuit against the state. The ruling brings an end to a court case that started on July 8, 2015.
Then, founder of the First Church of Cannabis Bill Levin filed suit against the state of Indiana, arguing that the state’s marijuana restrictions made it impossible for his church to offer its chosen sacrament: cannabis.
In 2015, the First Church of Cannabis became an officially recognized church in the state. Days after, Levin filed a lawsuit arguing that Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) should give the church an exemption from the state’s marijuana laws.
The lawsuit claimed that Indiana’s marijuana laws placed a substantial burden on the church’s exercise of religion.
But Marion County Superior Court Judge Sheryl Lynch ruled in favor of Indiana, not the church. In her opinion, Lynch questioned the sincerity of the church’s beliefs.
Lynch also wrote that an exemption would make it too difficult for law enforcement to enforce existing drug laws.
Officers, Lynch said, do not have the training to determine whether someone charged with cannabis use or possession was doing so out of sincere religious conviction. That, the judge went on, would make any religious exemption ripe for abuse.
In a Facebook post after the ruling, Levin vowed to appeal the court’s decision.
Court Rules Indiana’s Religious Freedom Laws Don’t Apply To Cannabis Churches
In March 2015, then-governor of Indiana Mike Pence, currently Vice President of the United States, signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law.
Under RFRA, individuals and companies can make the case that their exercise of religion has been substantially burdened by a law, policy, or other rules.
The controversial law prompted large-scale protests and condemnation. Critics of RFRA argue that the law legally codifies discrimination, something Pence has routinely denied.
The precedent for Indiana’s Religious Freedom law came to national prominence in the famous Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case.
Hobby Lobby claimed that offering healthcare which provided contraceptives to employees was a violation of the company’s religious beliefs.
The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Hobby Lobby’s favor in 2014.
But if RFRA applies to a company’s right to withhold health care for religious reasons, on Friday an Indiana court ruled that RFRA did not protect a religious organization’s use of cannabis as a sacrament.