Religious Group Wants Tea Back

Armed with a favorable decision from a federal appeals court, lawyers for members of a Brazilian religious group in Santa Fe are seeking the return of a hallucinogenic tea used as a sacrament.

O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal, or UDV, has now won legal victories twice — at the U.S. District Court in Albuquerque and at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver — but still hasn’t managed to exact return of the tea, known as hoasca.

The UDV, in a motion filed last week, is asking the appeals court to lift a stay imposed by the court in December 2002 after U.S. District Judge James A. Parker granted a preliminary injunction in favor of the religious group.

Parker’s ruling barred the government from prohibiting use of hoasca by UDV members and required federal authorities to let UDV import tea and bona fide church members to use it in accordance with their own strict internal guidelines.

Parker’s 2002 decision came after two weeks of evidentiary hearings and testimony by religious officials in Brazil, medical researchers in the U.S., anthropologists and representatives of Native American religious groups, among others.

But government lawyers immediately obtained a stay of Parker’s preliminary injunction from the 10th Circuit pending the appeal. However, in a 2-1 opinion released Sept. 4, a three-judge panel of the appeals court upheld Parker’s injunction in favor of the church. Government lawyers now are expected to ask for an en banc review by the entire appeals court.

“As a result of the government raid and seizures of our sacrament and the defendants’ threats to prosecute us, (we) have been unable to exercise our chosen form of worship in this country for more than four years,” Jeffrey Bronfman of Santa Fe said in a written statement.

Bronfman is the UDV’s head in North America and a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The statement accompanied a motion for clarification filed by UDV lawyers last week.

“While we still gather regularly, our meetings in the present circumstances are not religious services,” he said, comparing the situation to Catholics in a cathedral who can’t celebrate Mass or Jews in a synagogue who can’t read the Torah.

“Other than through the unsubstantiated allegations of our government that it made for purposes of this litigation, the UDV has never been accused of causing any harm,” Bronfman’s statement said. “The harm that we are experiencing as a result of the government’s action is not theoretical or academic for us. It is a suffering that any devout religious person could understand.”

Government officials who seized the tea from Bronfman’s Santa Fe- area home and have opposed its return argue that hoasca could be diverted for illegal use, has potentially detrimental medical effects and would hamper the nation’s diplomatic efforts to combat international drug smuggling.

Parker and the 10th Circuit found, however, that the evidence was “virtually balanced,” and that the harm to religious freedom tipped the balance in favor of the UDV.

In a dissent, appeals court Judge Michael R. Murphy said the government had argued convincingly that returning the tea “could seriously impede its ability to gain the cooperation of other nations in controlling the flow of illegal drugs.”

In May 1999, the U.S. Customs Service confiscated barrels containing 30 gallons of the tea that Bronfman had imported from Brazil. Bronfman and other UDV members then sued for return of the tea or a declaration by the court that importation of it was legal.

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