Original photo by Dave H., some rights reserved.Oklevueha Native American Church (Church) was established in 1997 in Utah by Plaintiff James Mooney and his wife Linda, who are each of Native American decent.  According to the complaint in Oklevueha Native American Church v. United States of America, Case 3:16-cv-00077 (D. OR, Jan. 15, 2015), the Church has thousands of members and branches in the United States and elsewhere.  Core religious principles of the Church are based on the integration of nature, natural health and reliance on “medicine people,” who may prepare sacraments for members.  Sacraments include peyote, cannabis, and many other natural herbs and plants.

The Church’s religious practices have previously placed it in the hairs of governmental forces.  In 1999, the State of Utah arrested the Mooneys for violations of the Unites States Controlled Substances Act (USCA).  Five years later, the Utah Supreme Court, in State of Utah v. Mooney, 2004 UT 49 (2004), held that the Mooneys’ and the Church’s religious use of peyote was not subject to prosecution under the USCA and charges against the Mooneys were dropped.

In the current lawsuit, the Mooneys and the Church have gone on the offensive.  Late in 2015, Joy Graves, a Church leader in Cottage Grove, Oregon, prepared a package containing sacramental cannabis for a Church member in Ohio who suffers from esophageal cancer.  Approximately a week later, the package was seized by federal agents for “law enforcement” purposes.  Grave requested that the package be released because the cannabis was to be used in the Church’s spiritual healing rituals, and seizure of the package will impede the Ohio members’ religious use.

The Church claims that all defendants, including the United Stated Postal Service, violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) due to the government’s seizure of the sacramental cannabis.  It cites the Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, 546 U.S. 418 (2006) for the proposition that the USCA does not meet “strict scrutiny” review of RFRA.

The Church has included a RLUIPA count in its complaint.  It claims “As a result of the seizure of its cannabis used for spiritual healing and religious rituals, CHRUCH has suspended BRANCH’s cultivation, preparation, blessing and transportation of cannabis which has substantially burdened use of land by CHURCH….”  Whether or not application of the USCS can be considered a “land use regulation” is a novel and interesting question, or at least a creative pleading.  RLUIPA claims apply to “land use regulation[s],” which are defined by the statute as “a zoning or landmarking law, or the application of such a law, that limits or restricts a claimant’s use or development of land (including a structure affixed to land), if the claimant has an ownership, leasehold, easement, servitude, or other property interest in the regulated land or a contract or option to acquire such an interest.”

Original photo by Dave H., some rights reserved.

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Photo of Karla Chaffee Karla Chaffee

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six Fact Patterns of Substantial Burden in RLUIPA: Lessons for Potential Litigants,” (with Dwight Merriam) published in Albany Government Law Review (Spring 2009). Karla has continued to write and speak on RLUIPA and has represented clients in several federal proceedings, including RLUIPA, First Amendment, and Equal Protection claims. In addition to her RLUIPA practice, Karla has litigated complex environmental matters, defending claims under Massachusetts Chapter 21E. Karla’s transactional experience includes pre-acquisition and pre-financing due diligence, environmental risk assessment and risk mitigation. She also represents clients seeking local zoning approvals and counsels them on the impact of proposed or recently enacted land use legislation, as well as on land use trends across the country.

Karla is also a proud member of Robinson+Cole’s Pro Bono Committee and is dedicated to maintaining pro bono work as part of her practice. Her pro bono clients include individuals and families seeking asylum in the United States. She has also represented nonprofit organizations in obtaining tax-exempt status and has served as legal counsel in a zoning appeal for a nonprofit association created to support and protect a national park.

Photo of Evan Seeman Evan Seeman

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of…

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of an amicus curiae brief at the petition stage before the United States Supreme Court in a RLUIPA case entitled City of San Leandro v. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Evan serves as the Secretary/Treasurer of the APA’s Planning & Law Division. He also serves as the Chair of the Planning & Zoning Section of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section, and is the former Co-Chair of its Municipal Law Section. He has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list as a Rising Star in the area of Land Use Law for 2013 and 2014. He received his B.A. in political science and Russian studies (with honors) from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was selected as the President’s Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature. Evan received his Juris Doctor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he served on the Connecticut Law Review. While in law school, he interned with the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General in the environmental department, and served as a judicial intern for the judges of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court. Following law school, Evan clerked for the Honorable F. Herbert Gruendel of the Connecticut Appellate Court.

Photo of John Peloso John Peloso

John Peloso, a partner in the firm’s Real Estate Litigation Group, is a trial lawyer who represents companies, municipalities, and individuals in a wide range of matters. At the administrative, trial, and appellate levels, John counsels clients and litigates real property disputes, including…

John Peloso, a partner in the firm’s Real Estate Litigation Group, is a trial lawyer who represents companies, municipalities, and individuals in a wide range of matters. At the administrative, trial, and appellate levels, John counsels clients and litigates real property disputes, including real estate, land use, environmental, and tax matters, including RLUIPA and eminent domain matters.

In the area of real estate litigation, John represents institutional, municipal, and individual clients in disputes involving title, zoning, wetlands, land use, RLUIPA, eminent domain, and other real property rights. He also represents clients in all aspects of commercial lease and other real estate transactional disputes. In the area of real property tax litigation, he represents institutional and individual clients in proceedings at the regulatory, administrative, and trial levels. In this regard, he has dealt with specialized issues involving among other things, the valuation of high-tech software, wireless communications equipment, contingency fee tax audits, special use properties, and the impact of environmental conditions on the valuation of real property.

Prior to joining Robinson+Cole, John was a member of the litigation department at White & Case LLP in New York City, where he concentrated his practice in complex commercial, property and securities litigation.