The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a congregation in New Mexico may use hallucinogenic tea as part of a four-hour ritual intended to connect with God.
In their first religious freedom decision under Chief Justice John Roberts, the justices moved decisively to keep the government out of a church's religious practice. In the decision, Roberts wrote that federal drug agents should have been barred from confiscating the hoasca tea of the Brazil-based church and that the Bush administration had failed to meet its burden under a federal religious freedom law to show that it should be allowed to ban "the sect's sincere religious practice."
The tea, which contains an illegal drug known as DMT, is considered sacred to members of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal. Members of the church, which has a blend of Christian beliefs and South American traditions, believe they can understand God only by drinking the tea twice a month at four-hour ceremonies.
The government had been fighting since 1999 to stop the group from importing and using the tea.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that the group could continue to drink hoasca.
"Many groups see this case as a very important case because the government is taking a position … that it really ought not to have to prove any compelling interest in restricting [religious activity,]" said John Boyd, one of the lawyers representing the church.
Spirituality or Illegal Drug Use?
O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal blends Christian theology with Amazonian spiritual traditions. It developed as a religious practice in 1961 in Brazil, where it has temples in more than 100 cities and villages, according to the group. In America, there are about 140 UDV members.
Drinking hoasca is an integral part of the group's worship, and UDV members believe a manifestation of divinity is present within the tea. "The members of this church believe it connects them with God and it is a very sacred and very holy moment for them, and that's something that the government does not dispute," Boyd said.
While it does not discount the reasons behind using hoasca, the government argues that DMT is an unsafe drug, banned by the Controlled Substances Act. It also asserts the substance is barred from being imported into the United States under the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971, an international treaty aimed at stopping drug trafficking.
In its legal brief, the Justice Department noted that the convention allowed signatories at the time to make "reservations," exempting a substance if it arose from a native-grown plant that was "traditionally used by certain small, clearly determined groups in magical or religious rites." However, the department said that this did not govern the international trade of the substance, and that the United States had made no reservation for DMT when it joined the convention.
The brief also stated that studies of DMT and "ayahuasca," the general name for hoasca and similar products, documented "significant adverse psychological effects arising from ingestion of the substance, such as the relapse of depression, intense anxiety and disorientation and various forms of psychosis."
However, UDV members say that the use of the tea is limited to their ceremonies, and abuse is considered sacrilegious, according to the group's Web site.
"The record does not support the government's alarmist arguments that denial of the petition will result in physical or psychological harm," the church's filings state.
A spokesman for the solicitor general's office declined comment on the case, as did members of UDV.
Religious Freedom vs. Public Safety
At the heart of the justices' decision was whether the regulations of RFRA allowed UDV to use hoasca without prosecution. RFRA, passed overwhelmingly by Congress in 1993, requires the government not to limit religious freedom unless it has a "compelling interest" in doing so, and -- if it must be restricted -- to use the least burdensome and intrusive method.
Chief Justice Roberts was skeptical of the government's position in the case last fall, suggesting that the administration was demanding too much, a "zero tolerance approach."
The Bush administration had argued that the drug in the tea not only violated a federal narcotics law, but a treaty in which the United States promised to block the importation of drugs including dimethyltryptamine, also known as DMT.
Supporters of UDV said the government had neither proven it had a compelling reason nor tried to stop the practice in the least restrictive manner. Lee Boothby is vice president of the International Academy for Freedom of Religion and Belief, one of many religious organizations representing a spectrum of faiths to file briefs on behalf of UDV in the case. He said the case marked an important test of RFRA.
Melissa Rogers, visiting professor of religion and public policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School, said the case would determine whether RFRA "has real bite or whether it is essentially toothless."
"This is not a case where religious groups are asking for immunity from public laws, but merely for an important check on the government's ability to interfere with religious practices," Rogers said.
ABC News' Adrienne Lewin contributed to this report.