In a unanimous decision, the court found in favor of a couple charged in 2000 with drug distribution for providing peyote to members and visitors at their church in Benjamin, about 50 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.
Officers confiscated about 12,000 peyote buttons from the six-acre complex that serves as home to the Oklevueha Earthwalks Native American Church.
James and Linda Mooney were charged with more than 10 first-degree felony counts of operating a controlled-substance criminal enterprise and one second-degree count of racketeering. They were never tried, and Tuesday’s ruling stemmed from a defense request to dismiss the case.
Federal law allows tribal Indians and members of the Native American Church to use peyote in religious ceremonies. The Mooneys’ church is affiliated with the Native American Church, though they are not members of a federally recognized tribe.
Attorneys for the state argued there is no exception in state law for the use of peyote by Indians and said that even if the court ruled there was such an exception, it could not be extended to cover non-Indians.
The high court ruled that state law incorporates the federal regulation but does not specify a restriction on peyote use only by members of federally recognized tribes. Use of the hallucinogenic drug is limited to bona fide religious ceremonies as part of the Native American Church, Justice Jill Parrish wrote.
The court also said that permitting the exemption for some church members and not others would violate the equal-protection clause in the United States Constitution.
James Mooney said in a statement released by his attorney that the decision “will help to preserve the religious diversity on which our nation and this state were founded.”