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Give back the peyote

Daily Herald

Federal authorities ought to return peyote that was seized from an American Indian church in Utah County and stop trying to deliver their own brand of justice outside the court system.
James Flaming Eagle Mooney contends that the 15,000 peyote buttons should be returned because his church emerged victorious from a series of court battles. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Salt Lake City disagrees, saying that the peyote is contraband and that Mooney waived his right to use the substance.

That's hardly the point. The fact is that the use of peyote in genuine religious ceremonies is legitimate, and Mooney's rites are genuine. Court rulings at both federal and state levels support this concept. The prosecutors are using technicalities -- perversely, it seems -- to accomplish now by some sort of misguided sophistry what they failed to accomplish in court.

To understand why possession of this substance is a valid right, it's necessary to look back on the legal and moral battles.

Peyote, which comes from a small cactus native to the Southwest and Mexico, has been used by American Indians for centuries as a central part of their religious experience. Sometimes described as a hallucinogen, the drug has a range of effects. In can make those ingesting it violently ill -- and often does -- before feelings of intense introspection or peacefulness settle in. It is not a recreational drug.

Advocates say that those who try to abuse it are usually badly disappointed. Churches that use it in religious rites discourage recreational use, especially by those outside the tradition.

Peyote has often been targeted by the authorities as a dangerous drug akin to LSD -- Mescaline can be distilled from peyote, or made artificially. But some states have laws protecting peyote use in genuine religious ceremonies. And the federal government permits a few farmers in Texas to grow the peyote cactus and sell the buttons.

The questions then become: What is a genuine religious ceremony? What is a genuine religion? Who can be a member of it? And, most of all, who decides all of this?

The Native American Church is a loosely organized body founded in 1918 to help groups achieve recognition as legitimate churches. Mooney founded the Oklevueha Earthwalks Native American Church in 1997 in Benjamin. He claims to be part Seminole Indian, though the feds dispute that. In 2000, state and county agents raided his property, confiscated peyote and other items and charged Mooney and his wife with state and federal crimes related to peyote use and distribution.

In 2004, the Utah Supreme Court struck down the criminal charges. The court rightly ruled that the First Amendment protects the right of all people to worship as they choose.

The court also ruled that Utah laws incorporated a federal exemption exempting members of the Native American Church from peyote regulations.

Also of importance, the justices said that no one had to be a member of a federally recognized tribe to be a member of that church or any other.

Another crucial ruling came in 2006. The U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-0 decision, said the government couldn't block a New Mexico church from using a hallucinogenic tea in its rites.

The next day, the Utah U.S. Attorney's Office announced a settlement agreement with Mooney, dropping the charges. But the deal included a clause that Mooney and his wife would not use peyote.

Mooney, saying he signed the settlement two weeks before the high court ruling, has called it unconstitutional. He cites the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, the state high court's, and a 1991 federal court ruling that protected the use of the drug by members of the Native American church, regardless of their tribal affiliation.

He has the basic principles of liberty on his side. The essence of freedom is indeed the right to worship as one wishes. The government should not be stepping in to say who can or cannot join a church, especially if race forms the basis for that judgment.

A number of commentators have pointed out there are parallels in mainstream religions: Many Christians and Jews regularly use a powerful and dangerous substance in their ceremonies. That substance, of course, is wine. If this seems far-fetched, we need only recall the alcohol prohibition movement that swept the country a century ago. Wine that was used in communion or in Jewish rites was threatened with bans. When Prohibition went into effect, federal law had to exempt the wine used in recognized religious ceremonies.

But what the government can allow, it can also ban. Imagine the uproar if the authorities tried to ban the use of wine in Catholic churches or Jewish synagogues. Or if the U.S. attorney's office tried to dictate who was an authorized Episcopalian or Lutheran and thus legally permitted to take communion in those churches.

Mooney plans to petition the U.S. Senate for help. By all rights, he should succeed. The government's case has been hit by one court ruling after another. It's time for federal prosecutors to stop acting like judges and just let this one go. They should give Mooney back the peyote that is an important part of his religion and his personal property.

To play games based on technicalities is to act in bad faith. They lost the broad argument. They should stop pouting over minor details.
Should federal authorities return confiscated peyote to a Utah County man? Send your comments to dhpolls@heraldextra.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or call 344-2942. Please leave your name, hometown and phone number with your comments. E-mail comments should not exceed 100 words; voicemail comments should be no longer than 30 seconds. Anonymous and unverifiable responses will not be published. You can also comment online at our home page at The Daily Herald will publish results on Aug. 17.

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