Justices uphold religious peyote use

The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday ensured that Utah members of the Native American Church, regardless of their race, cannot be prosecuted for using peyote as part of their religion.

The justices unanimously ruled in favor of Oklevueha Earthwalks Native American Church founder James “Flaming Eagle” Mooney and his wife, Linda. The couple were charged with a dozen first-degree felony counts after police seized 12,000 peyote buttons during an October 2000 raid.

The Mooneys and other church members legally can use the hallucinogenic cactuses under a federal exemption passed in 1970 that is incorporated into Utah law, the high court said. Mooney has said he is one-quarter Seminole but is not a registered member of a federally recognized tribe.

“Because the text of the exemption is devoid of any reference to tribal status, we find no support for an interpretation limiting the exemption to tribal members,” wrote Justice Jill N. Parrish for the court. “Therefore, so long as their church is part of ‘the Native American Church,’ the Mooneys may not be prosecuted for using peyote in bona fide religious ceremonies.”

Civil rights attorney Kathryn Collard, who represented the Mooneys and the church in the appeal, called Tuesday’s ruling a victory for religious freedom.

“In every era people have had to fight for the right to practice their religious beliefs freely, particularly if their beliefs were not that of the predominant culture,” she said. “The great thing is that we can do that. We have a Constitution that protects our rights to practice our religion freely.”

But Collard claims the ruling is not a license for recreational peyote use.

“It isn’t like if you and I wanted to go do some peyote we could form a church and go do some,” she said. “I don’t think just calling yourself a Native American Church would do it. There is a body of teaching and religious beliefs people recognize as being central to the Native American Church.”

Assistant Utah Attorney General Kris Leonard said it has not been decided whether the state will appeal the ruling. The opinion, she said, assumes the Mooneys are members of a valid branch of the Native American Church.

There are hundreds of Native American Church chapters in the United States and Canada. James Mooney’s congregation had between 200 and 300 members before Utah County Sheriff’s deputies raided the church’s 6-acre property in Benjamin. Deputy Utah County Attorney David Wayment said his office will examine the ruling and decide if it wants to challenge the legal status of Mooney’s church or investigate whether peyote was used for bona fide religious purposes, as the federal law that protects religious use requires.

“Several counties have done peyote prosecutions in the past,” he said. “Everybody’s going to have to sit down and have a look at this to see what it means for the future of peyote prosecution, if there is a future.”

The Oklevueha, or “unstoppable river,” church worships peyote as a deity and sacrament. Mooney purchased his peyote from Texas, where the cactuses are legally harvested and sold.

While the case has been on appeal, many members of the Oklevueha Earthwalks have been fearful of attending services and being prosecuted, Collard said.

Another church member, Nicholas Stark, was charged with second- and third-degree felony counts after police seized 10 pounds of peyote buttons and 5 pounds of coca leaves from him in July 2000. His case also has been on hold pending the outcome of the Mooneys’ appeal.

Tuesday’s opinion orders a judge to reconsider the Mooneys’ request to have the charges against them dismissed.

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