The plainclothes officers mainly stayed on the outskirts of the Exchange Place ceremony, although some videotaped the proceedings from the audience and even from a black pickup truck parked on Main Street.
Mooney was celebrating a huge legal win in June when the state Supreme Court ruled he could legally use peyote as part of his religious ceremonies. A federal exemption that allows use of the hallucinogenic drug in religious ceremonies applies to all legitimate members of the Native American Church, the court said, not only those who are also members of federally recognized American Indian tribes.
Though the ruling protects Mooney from state prosecution for the time being, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Utah recently warned Mooney that his continued use of peyote could subject him to possible prosecution under federal drug laws.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said no charges are forthcoming against Mooney, and said the police presence, largely agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, was simply to ensure the ceremony conformed with federal law.
“That’s what we wanted to be sure of,” spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch said. “If he had been using peyote, that would have been a violation of federal law and he would have been subject to arrest.”
Wednesday, with gentle flute music competing with the cacophony of Main Street traffic, Mooney celebrated the Utah Supreme Court ruling in a sacred pipe ceremony. He removed his shoes and sat cross-legged on blankets to smoke from a pipe dedicated to him in 1987 by a leader of a Florida Seminole tribe while his wife, Linda, fanned participants with smoke.
Mooney made clear he was smoking herbs he collected from the Utah mountains rolled in a corn husk — “no illegal substances,” he said. Peyote was not part of the ceremony, he said.
Despite Mooney’s assertions, federal agents asked his attorney, Kathryn Collard, for a sample of the materials used in Wednesday’s ceremony. Mooney consented and allowed officers to take a small amount of the mixture, Collard said.
The attorney said she was disappointed but not surprised by the police presence.
“I’d like to be surprised, but I’m not. I don’t know why they are going to such extreme lengths,” Collard said. “Here are 15 police officers . . . surveilling people who are sitting on the ground and having a traditional peace ceremony.”
Mooney founded the Oklevueha Earth Walks Native American Church in 1997 in Gunnison, Utah. The Native American Church operates throughout the United States and Canada, and each chapter operates autonomously and sets its own rules.