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Justices debate use of sacred tea

Wednesday, November 2, 2005

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 John Roberts.

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.

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