God Comes Into View: Court OK's Hallucinogenic Tea

A federal judge has given an Oregon church group permission to continue drinking hallucinogenic tea during religious services.

Psychedelic drugs aren't just for the trippy '60s anymore.

After years of legal limbo, a federal judge has ruled that an Oregon church can look for God in a glass of hallucinogenic tea, saying the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen, of Ashland, is protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Followers of this Brazilian-based Christian church say that drinking the tea, known as hoasca (pronounced wa-SA-ca), increases their religious experience. The thick brew is made by scraping the bark of tropical vines. Believers make the sign of the cross before taking a sip.

"It is hallucinogenic, and they drink it only in the context of these religious ceremonies," said Alison Dundes Renteln, professor of political science and anthropology at the University of Southern California.

Believers say the tea enables them to talk to God and to see visions.

"Taking [the tea] was the first time that I actually understood and had a connection with God," National Geographic magazine reporter Kira Salak said.

Salak, author of "The White Mary," sent "Good Morning America" a video diary of her encountering the tea in the Amazon.

"I cough violently and watch as demons burst out of me, roaring, only to disintegrate in white light," she reported in the video. "And before me, this enormous image of God."

Religious Drugs?

Despite the judge's ruling last week, critics argue that the controversial tea is a drug. It may have been used for centuries during religious services in South America, but most specialty stores -- sometimes called head shops -- said it's not available in most parts of the United States.

And courts rarely use religion as a reason to permit otherwise illegal activities, legal experts said.

"Courts have rejected arguments by people who have tried to use cocaine or marijuana in their religion," ABC News legal correspondent Jan Crawford Greenberg said. "They've tried to strike a sensitive balance between protecting their sincere religious practices and rejecting people who are trying to do an end run around the drug laws."

Among the few exceptions are American Indian tribes that are allowed to use peyote during their religious ceremonies. Some said the intense psychological effects can last up to 12 hours.

It's too early to tell whether the federal judge's decision will be appealed, but for now, at least, the 40 members of the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen are counting their blessings.