In a unanimous ruling Tuesday, the Supreme Court decided that O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal (UDV), a religious congregation based in New Mexico, can use ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea, in its ceremonies.
The ruling marks an important victory for religious liberties. “The Supreme Court’s sad track record of carving out a ‘drug exception to the Bill Of Rights’ has narrowed freedoms for all Americans. Thank God the Court has at last decided that there are exceptions to that exception,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
The church, which blends Christian and indigenous South American religious practices, uses ayahuasca, a tea brewed from plants that grow in the Amazon, as part of its worship. Like ritual peyote usage among some North American Indians, ayahuasca has been a component of indigenous South American religious practices since pre-Columbian times.
The federal government banned UDV from using the tea because it contains DMT, a Schedule 1 drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act. The church eventually sued, and last year a three-judge 10th Circuit Court of Appeals panel upheld a lower court’s finding: the federal government did not prove that the drug posed a significant danger to its congregants or that use of ayahuasca would lead to non-religious use or abuse.
The Bush administration then appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which released its opinion this week siding with the church. In the decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the federal government should have been barred from confiscating the tea from UDV, and that UDV uses ayahuasca as a part of a “sincere religious practice.”