WASHINGTON, Feb. 21 — A unanimous Supreme Court decision on Tuesday gave a small religious sect the right to keep importing a hallucinogenic tea, central to its ritual observance, that the government wants to ban as a controlled substance under federal narcotics law.
With an opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the decision was one of the most significant applications of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 13-year-old federal statute that requires the government to meet a demanding test before it can enforce a law in a way that creates a substantial obstacle to religious observance.
The government failed to carry its burden under the statute, Chief Justice Roberts said in an opinion that not only rejected the administration’s specific arguments but also dismantled its theory of the case. The chief justice said the government’s “bold argument” that the Controlled Substances Act, the basic federal narcotics law, “simply 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, he 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.
Referring to the sect at issue in this case by its initials, U.D.V. (the full name is O Centro Espirita Beneficente União Do Vegetal), Chief Justice Roberts said that 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.”
To the government’s argument that the “unique relationship” between the United States and Indian tribes justified the different treatment, the chief justice replied that “nothing about the unique political status of the tribes makes their members immune from the health risks” or other problems the government has attributed to the use of banned narcotics.
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The tea, known as hoasca, is made from two plants found only in the Amazon rain forest. Its active ingredient is dimethyltryptamine, usually referred to as DMT.
The 8-to-0 decision, with Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. not participating because he was not on the court when the case was argued Nov. 1, affirmed a preliminary injunction that two lower federal courts had granted to block further government seizures of the tea.
Followers of the church, which is based in Brazil, sued the government under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1999 after customs agents seized a shipment of the tea bound for the group’s American headquarters in New Mexico.
Both the federal district court in Albuquerque and the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, agreed that the group’s 130 members were entitled to the preliminary injunction so they could maintain access to the tea while awaiting a full trial on the merits of their case. The administration then appealed to the Supreme Court.
In a technical sense, the government is still entitled to try to make its case at trial because the preliminary injunction was all that was before the Supreme Court in the case, Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Unia~o Do Vegetal, No. 04-1084. But the court’s rejection of the government’s position was so conclusive that the chance of a different outcome after a trial appears remote at best.
In his second Supreme Court opinion, Chief Justice Roberts employed a jargon-free, almost conversational style, using only two footnotes in the opinion’s 19 pages. For example, he wrote at one point: “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.”
He then went on to say that the very point of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was to require consideration, on a case-by-case basis, of claims to religious-based exemptions from laws of general applicability.
To the government’s argument that judges should not devise exceptions, Chief Justice Roberts said that the statute “plainly contemplates that courts would recognize exceptions — that is how the law works.”
In a 1998 decision, the court ruled on the grounds of states’ rights that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act could not be applied to the states. But the court has not questioned its applicability to the federal government.