WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court debated Tuesday whether to let
a small congregation in New Mexico worship with hallucinogenic tea, the first religious-freedom dispute under Chief Justice
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor seemed skeptical of the Bush administration's
claim that the tea can be banned, but she may not be around to vote in the case.
About 130 members of a Brazil-based church have been in a long-running
dispute with federal agents who seized their tea in 1999. The hoasca tea, which contains an illegal drug known as DMT, is
considered sacred to members of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal.
The Bush administration contends that the tea is not only illegal
but potentially dangerous.
The Supreme Court has dealt with religious-drug cases before. Justices
ruled 15 years ago that states could criminalize the use of peyote by American Indians. But Congress changed the law to allow
the sacramental use in tribal services of peyote, a bitter-tasting cactus that includes the hallucinogen mescaline.
O'Connor pointed out during Tuesday's argument that Congress changed
the rules. She interrupted the Bush administration lawyer in his opening statement and peppered him with difficult questions.
Other justices also seemed concerned by the government's claim that
an exception could be made for peyote, but not for hoasca tea.
"That is a rather rough problem under the First Amendment," said
Justice Stephen Breyer.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the 1990 peyote opinion, said tribes
have been using peyote — "a demonstration you can make an exception without the sky falling."
Bush administration lawyer Edwin Kneedler told justices that the
drug not only violates a federal narcotics law, but a treaty in which the United States promised to block the importation
of drugs including DMT, or dimethyltryptamine. The hoasca tea had been imported from Brazil.
The hoasca tea is used in communion by the church, which has a blend
of Christian beliefs and South American traditions. Members believe they can understand God only by drinking the tea, which
is consumed twice a month at four-hour ceremonies.