Religious freedom wins out

Ashland, USA — A federal judge Thursday confirmed the right of worshippers to drink hallucinogenic tea during services at an Ashland church.

Members of the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen, a Brazilian-based church with branches in Ashland and Portland, filed the motion to drink Daime tea during services, because they believe its hallucinogenic properties allow them a direct connection to Jesus.

Church leader Jonathan Goldman, 58, said U.S. District Court Judge Owen Panner's ruling was a boon for religious freedom and liberty in the United States.

"Everybody is very happy and relieved," Goldman said.

"It's been a 10-year process and to come to such a beautiful and blessed conclusion is a great day for us."

The church took its case to court under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act after federal agents in 1999 arrested Goldman for possessing the tea leaves.

The Ashland church is a branch of the Santo Daime, a mixture of Catholicism and Shamanistic Brazilian beliefs.

The ruling ordered the church to work closely with Drug Enforcement Administration agents to ensure the tea, which contains the hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT), does not fall into the wrong hands when it is imported from Brazil.

"We are looking forward to reaching a reasonable accommodation with the government," Goldman said.

Among other provisions, Panner ordered the church to provide the DEA with the names and Social Security numbers of members who routinely handle the tea outside of ceremonies. The church does not have to identify any other worshippers, according to court documents.

The DEA has the right to inspect the tea supply, but cannot do so during the church's religious ceremonies. In addition, the tea will be kept in a padlocked refrigerator.

The church is responsible for keeping records detailing how much of the tea is dispensed during services. Current and new members will be asked if they have a history of psychosis that may be susceptible to the effects of DMT. The church is asked to encourage members to seek the advice of a doctor before ingesting the tea.

Calls to the U.S. Department of Justice seeking comment Friday were not immediately returned.

Goldman said church members in Brazil and Europe have contacted the Ashland congregation to praise Panner's decision.

"The government's case was based purely on speculation, and speculation does not have much weight," Goldman said. "We were just ourselves in court and made the point that Daime tea has not done any harm."

Goldman said prospective members were hesitant to join the church in the past for fear that they were breaking the law when drinking the disputed tea.

"We do not push our beliefs in anyone's face and do not use anything to entice new members to join," Goldman said. "People come to us on their own and now they can feel safer because we have come under the light."

About 80 people practice the religion in Oregon, Goldman said.

Court documents state the preparation of the tea is a labor-intensive process undertaken by several members. Its creation coincides with prayer and the singing of hymns.

"We are grateful we have taken our place in the circle of religious dialogue in this country," Goldman said. "I believe in divine justice, but it is good to know earthly justice is still possible."