Though the Utah Supreme Court has approved peyote use for Native American Church members regardless of race, Utah’s federal prosecutors may not.
In June, the Utah Supreme Court OK’d religious peyote use for any member of the Native American Church. As a result, state drug charges were dropped against local medicine man James Mooney and his wife, Linda.
But federal prosecutors are now going after the couple. Prosecutors may challenge James Mooney’s assertion that he is part American Indian.
In an Aug. 20 letter sent to Mooney, founder of the Oklevueha Earthwalks Native American Church, U.S. Attorney Paul Warner said the court’s ruling does not bind federal prosecutors.
“Please be advised that this office is reviewing your conduct for consideration of seeking federal charges,” the letter said.
Warner’s office declined to comment on the letter or the case Friday.
Civil rights attorney Kathryn Collard, who represents the Mooneys and their church, called the letter outrageous.
“I think this is mean-spirited and in complete disrespect of the Utah Supreme Court decision,” she said. “This is not an area where federal law pre-empts state law. This is more harassment and persecution of these people, and it ought to stop.”
The Utah court unanimously ruled in favor of the Oklevueha church and the Mooneys, who were charged with a dozen first-degree felony counts after police seized 12,000 peyote buttons during an October 2000 raid. Its ruling pointed to a federal exemption passed in 1970 it said had been incorporated into Utah law.
Like hundreds of other Native American Church chapters in the United States and Canada, the Oklevueha, or “unstoppable river,” church worships peyote as a deity and sacrament.
Mooney said church members had been making preparations to take peyote again when the letter arrived. He called it an intimidation tactic and said his legal struggles have been personally difficult for his family.
“They want to put me and my wife in prison for the rest of our lives for what, helping people?” said the 60-year-old Mooney, who noted that the American Indian religion has been practiced on this continent for thousands of years.
Although the Utah Supreme Court ruled religious use of peyote is legal for church members regardless of their race, federal authorities may try to counter by using language from federal law that defines an Indian as a person who belongs to a federally recognized tribe.
Mooney said Friday that argument has been rejected by federal appellate courts. He claims to be one-quarter Seminole, but is not a registered tribal member.
Mooney’s congregation had between 200 and 300 members before Utah County Sheriff’s deputies raided the church’s 6-acre property in Benjamin. He purchased his peyote from Texas, where the cactuses are legally harvested and sold.
Collard said Friday she plans to call on other Utah religions and churches for support.
“If this concerned the sacrament of any other religion, people would be up in arms,” she said.