Justices, in their first religious freedom decision under Chief Justice John Roberts, moved decisively to keep the government out of a church's religious practice. Federal drug agents should have been barred from confiscating the hoasca tea of the Brazil-based church, Roberts wrote in the decision.
The tea, which contains an illegal drug known as DMT, is considered sacred to members of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal, which has a blend of Christian beliefs and South American traditions. Members believe they can understand God only by drinking the tea, which is consumed twice a month at four-hour ceremonies.
I'll read the case and have more later. Here is my earlier post on the oral argument in the case:
A religious group wants to use a drug -- hoasca -- and argues that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act entitles it to an exemption from the Controlled Sustances Act. Under RFRA, the federal government must have a compelling state interest to impose a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion. The government claims an interest in preventing the drug from being diverted into other uses:Today's opinion is unanimous (with, Alito, of course, not participating). It's written by the new Chief Justice, so I'm especially interested in reading it. I so devoutly hope to find his opinions sublimely crisp."Your approach is totally categorical,'' Roberts told government lawyer Edwin Kneedler during a one-hour argument session in Washington. If a religious group used only one drop of the drug a year, : "your position would still be the same,'' Roberts said....Interesting! I suppose people will compare this to last term's medical marijuana case, Raich, in which the Court (including Scalia) was quite deferential to the claim that the government needs to be able to pervasively regulate a drug. But Raich was about the scope of Congress's power as against the power of the states. Today's case is about two different federal statutes, one coming after the other and capable of limiting it. The question isn't how much constitutional power Congress has, but what Congress actually did in its two statutes. If it didn't want to cut special exemptions to religious groups, it shouldn't have passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. If it didn't want RFRA to apply to drugs, it could have written an exception into it. But in fact, RFRA was enacted in response to a Supreme Court case that was about the failure to give special treatment to the religious use of a drug, so it's especially apt that it should apply here.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the 1990 decision, pointed to an exception Congress made for peyote in American Indian religious ceremonies.
"It's a demonstration you can make exceptions without the sky falling,'' Scalia said.
Justice John Paul Stevens followed up by asking whether the use of peyote indicated that "maybe it's not all that compelling.''
Of the nine justices, Anthony Kennedy offered the strongest support for the government's position.
"It seems to me at the very least there should be a presumption that there is a compelling interest,'' Kennedy told Nancy Hollander, the church's lawyer....
Several justices, including Scalia and Roberts, questioned Hollander's contention that hoasca is exempted under the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances, which aims to bar trade in illicit drugs. The U.S. is among more than 160 signatories to that treaty.
Both Scalia and Roberts, however, said Congress has the authority to override a treaty through domestic law.
"Isn't it well established that statutes trump treaties?'' Scalia asked.
UPDATE: I’ve read the case, which is called Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao Do Vegetal. The government said it has a compelling interest in the uniform application of the federal law, but Roberts slapped that down:
The Government’s argument echoes the classic rejoinder of bureaucrats throughout history: If I make an exception for you, I’ll have to make one for everybody, so no exceptions. But RFRA operates by mandating consideration, under the compelling interest test, of exceptions to “rule[s] of general applicability.” Congress determined that the legislated test “is a workable test for striking sensible balances between religious liberty and competing prior governmental interests.”…There was also an argument that the government has a compelling interest in complying with the international Convention on Psychotropic Substances, which, the Court held, did in fact cover hoasca. But the government failed to present any evidence of what detriment would occur if this small group were given an exemption.
We do not doubt that there may be instances in which a need for uniformity precludes the recognition of exceptions to generally applicable laws under RFRA. But it would have been surprising to find that this was such a case, given the longstanding exemption from the Controlled Substances Act for religious use of peyote, and the fact that the very reason Congress enacted RFRA was to respond to a decision denying a claimed right to sacramental use of a controlled substance.
The Court tweaks the government for relying so heavily on interests represented by the Controlled Substances Act:
Congress had a reason for enacting RFRA, too. Congress recognized that “laws ‘neutral’ toward religion may burden religious exercise as surely as laws intended to interfere with religious exercise,” and legislated the compelling interest test as the means for the courts to “strik[e] sensible balances between religious liberty and competing prior governmental interests.”I must say that I find this case quite amusing! Congress catered to religious interest groups by passing RFRA and thereby disagreeing with the way the Smith Court had read exemptions out of the Constitution's Free Exercise Clause. The Court had tried to constrain the judicial role, but Congress then forced that role on the courts with a statute. And now the Court is taking the statute seriously. They are deferring to Congress by accepting the old activist role of making case-by-case accommodations. How deliciously ironic.
We have no cause to pretend that the task assigned by Congress to the courts under RFRA is an easy one. Indeed, the very sort of difficulties highlighted by the Government here were cited by this Court in deciding that the approach later mandated by Congress under RFRA was not required as a matter of constitutional law under the Free Exercise Clause. But Congress has determined that courts should strike sensible balances, pursuant to a compelling interest test that requires the Government to address the particular practice at issue.