PIMA, Ariz. — A U.S. judge is scheduled to decide if Dan and Mary Quaintance are drug dealers or church leaders with a national following.
They claim the marijuana they get from Mexico is part of their religion. However, the U.S. government argues their church is a cover for a criminal enterprise.
Religious freedom is a core belief in the United States, and the Quaintances, founders of the Church of Cognizance, say they’re defending the right to practice their faith.
“In our church, we believe the cannabis plant is the teacher,” Dan Quaintance said.
They consider cannabis — marijuana — a religious sacrament.
“Yes, we would consume marijuana, and we would pray, and Dan preaches a lot,” Mary Quaintance said laughing.
That’s also why the founders of the church now face criminal charges.
“We were about less than a mile from the freeway, (and) two border patrol agents come flying off the freeway,” Dan Quaintance said.
The Quaintances were stopped in New Mexico earlier this year and did not denying they were carrying 172 pounds of marijuana with the help of a courier. Dan Quaintance quickly identified himself as a card-carrying church leader.
“‘Authorizes cardholder to cultivate, possess, utilize marijuana for bonafide religious purposes,'” Dan Quaintance said, reading from his card.
In court, the government argues the couple is not protected by the Freedom of Religion Restoration Act because “their lifestyle does not rise to the level of a religion.”
The government also said, “The Church of Cognizance was set up to challenge the drug laws in an attempt to circumvent prosecution for their drug trafficking.”
The case is set to be decided by a federal court at the end of November, and it has attracted attention well beyond the couple’s home in the Southwest.
“It’s freedom of religion, period, that’s on trial because right now, this court is deciding what qualifies as religion,” Dan Quaintance said.
The church leaders claim there are hundreds of members across the United States who practice in homes called monasteries.
The Quaintances’ monastery is a trailer home just outside the tiny, rural town of Pima, and they have a Web site.
However, even in this region, where Native Americans won the legal right to use peyote in religious ceremonies, some locals are not convinced.
“What they’re doing, I don’t think is right,” said Thelma Rambler, a resident of the Bylas Reservation. “Because drugs are illegal.”
The church founders, who are facing 40 years in prison, aim to prove otherwise.
“I feel in my gut that we have a good chance. I do,” Mary Quaintance said.
“If there’s religious freedom in America,” Dan Quaintance added.
They pray their case will be dismissed.
The Quaintances said they do have members in Texas, but those members did not want to talk to KENS 5 because of the pending court case.