About once a month and on certain holidays, members of a New Mexico branch of a Brazilian religious group drink a tea called hoasca, a sacrament they liken to Catholics taking wine at communion. They believe it gives them heightened spiritual awareness.
But one of the ingredients in hoasca, which is made from plants indigenous to the Brazilian Amazon, is dimethyltryptamine, an illegal hallucinogen. The government has 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. Now the issue has reached the Supreme Court in a case that is seen as a test of religious freedom in America.
The court will decide in Gonzales v. Centro Espirita Beneficente União do Vegetal whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 requires the government to allow the church to continue to import and drink the tea.
"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.
Centro Espirita Beneficente União 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 notes that the convention did allow signatories at the time to make "reservations," exempting a substance if it arises from a native-grown plant that is "traditionally used by certain small, clearly determined groups in magical or religious rites," but it said this does not govern the international trade of the substance, and the United States made no reservation for DMT when it joined the convention.
The brief also states 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.