A Cannabis Church Tests Indiana’s Religious-Freedom Law

A church devoted to the legalization of marijuana held its first service in Indianapolis on Wednesday.

The First Church of Cannabis, founded in March of this year with members who identify as Cannaterians, is seeking to legalize marijuana in Indiana as a religious liberty. The church is citing the state’s controversial Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, which went into effect on Wednesday. The law, which permits companies and individuals to defend themselves in legal proceedings by citing religious beliefs, has been attacked by opponents who argue that it could be used by those who want to discriminate against LGBT people. But the First Church of Cannabis hopes to turn that concern on its head, using the law to allow for legal marijuana use.

The gathering on Wednesday included Christian hymns, from the traditional “Amazing Grace” to a rendition of the marijuana smokers’ anthem, “Mary Jane.”

But the service after the hymns was decidedly nontraditional, including testimony from church members on medical marijuana and pot growers arguing for their legalization. (The church grounds had no marijuana, as marijuana possession is illegal in Indiana.)

The Cannaterians, a group which counts its worshipers in the thousands and asks its members for a $4.20 tithing per month, view marijuana as a religious sacrament, according to Bill Levin, the “Grand Poobah” of the church, who said that opposition to the church and its teachings was akin to religious persecution.

“Among its distinguishing features are its belief in the gift of Cannabis from a supreme power from which man and woman are to use for the betterment of humankind,” the church’s website reads.

The First Church of Cannabis isn’t the first group to challenge the intersection of federal law and religion. Canna Care, a “Christian-based” medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento, Calif., fought with the Internal Revenue Service on the company’s tax bill under a 1982 law that did not recognize drug trafficking as a business, thereby making it illegal for the group to pay taxes.

Some in Indiana’s religious community reacted negatively to First Church of Cannabis.

“I don’t believe it’s a religion,” said Bill Jenkins, a local pastor of an evangelical church. “I believe it’s a drug house.”