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Home  arrow Updates  arrow Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal (2006)

Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal (2006)

In Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, (1990) , Supreme Court held that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment does not prohibit governments from burdening religious practices through generally applicable laws. In Smith, the Court rejected a challenge to an Oregon statute that denied unemployment benefits to drug users, including Native Americans engaged in the sacramental use of peyote, and held that the Constitution does not require judges to engage in a case-by-case assessment of the religious burdens imposed by facially constitutional laws.

Congress responded by enacting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. Under RFRA, the federal government may not, as a statutory matter, substantially burden a person's exercise of religion, "even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability." The only exception recognized by the statute requires the government to satisfy the compelling interest test—to demonstrate]that application of the burden to the person—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling government interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest. The Controlled Substances Act regulates the importation, manufacture, distribution, and use of psychotropic substances.

Members of UDV church receive communion by drinking hoasca, a tea brewed from plants unique to the Amazon Rainforest that contains DMT, a hallucinogen regulated under the federal Controlled Substances Act. After U. S. Customs inspectors seized a hoasca shipment to the American UDV and threatened prosecution, the UDV filed a suit alleging that applying the Controlled Substances Act to the UDV's sacramental hoasca use violates the RFRA.

The Supreme Court held that the federal government failed to demonstrate a compelling interest in barring the UDV's sacramental use of hoasca. In a decision written for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the government's argument that the Controlled Substances Act, the basic federal narcotics law, admits of no exceptions could not be reconciled either with the religious freedom law or with administrative practice under the act itself.

For the past 35 years, Roberts noted, the government has permitted American Indians to use peyote in their religious rituals despite the fact that peyote and its active ingredient, mescaline, are banned for general use under the Controlled Substances Act and have been found by Congress to be dangerous substances with a high potential for abuse. If peyote was permitted despite those findings "for hundreds of thousands of Native Americans practicing their faith, it is difficult to see how those same findings alone can preclude any consideration of a similar exception for the 130 of so American members of the U.D.V. who want to practice theirs."

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