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.