High Court Allows N.M. Church to Use Tea

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday that a New Mexico church has the right to use a hallucinogenic tea in its services, rejecting a government argument that the tea is illegal and potentially dangerous.

The ruling brings to a close a long-running legal fight between federal officials and the Brazil-based O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal over the church's use of hoasca tea, brewed from plants found in the Amazon River Basin.

The legal battle began after federal agents seized 30 gallons of the tea in a 1999 raid on the Santa Fe home of the church's U.S. president, Jeffrey Bronfman. Bronfman sued the government for the right to use the tea and the church won a preliminary injunction, which was upheld by 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

The government took the case to the Supreme Court, where Justice Stephen Breyer (news - web sites) last week granted a temporary stay to give both sides time to file more arguments. The full court lifted the stay Friday and ruled in favor of the church.

"They're delighted," attorney Nancy Hollander said of the church members she represented. "They're so thrilled that they can celebrate Christmas for the first time since 1998."

Bronfman and attorneys for the government did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

The church, which has about 140 members in the United States and 8,000 worldwide, said the herbal brew is a central sacrament in its religious practice, which is a blend of Christian beliefs and traditions rooted in the Amazon basin.

Hollander said the tea is drunk in a ritual similar to the Catholic Communion. Church members then sit in a circle and meditate; they believe the tea brings them closer to God.

The tea contains DMT, which federal officials maintain is a controlled substance under an international treaty. However, Bronfman's complaint contends the tea is "non-addictive, is not harmful to human health and poses none of the risks commonly found with the use of certain controlled substances."

The church had drawn parallels to federal protection for members of the Native American Church using peyote, which also has hallucinogenic properties.