RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) restricts the Federal Government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, 42 U.S.C. 2000bb-1(a), except when the Government can demonstrate that application of the burden to the person-(1) furthers a compelling government interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.
Did the Government prove a compelling interest?
Confirmed and remanded. The courts did not err in determining that the Government failed to demonstrate, at the preliminary injunction stage, a compelling interest in barring UDV’s sacramental use of Hoasa.
Roberts delivered the opinion of the court in which all other members joined, except Alito, who took no part in either the consideration nor the decision of the case.
The Government had the burden to demonstrate compelling interest and the Government failed to demonstrate compelling interest in barring the sect’s use of hoasa for sacramental purposes.
Fact of the Case:
The religious group, O Centro Espiria Beneficente Do Vegetal brought suit, seeking to stop the government from enforcing the Controlled Substance Act banning the group’s use of a tea containing the hallucinogen, Hoasa, during religious ceremonies. The United States District Court for the District of New Mexico, 282 F.Supp.2d 1236, granted a preliminary injunction. Government appealed. The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, 342 F.3d 1170 affirmed. On en banc review, the court of appeals, 389 F.3d 973, affirmed. Certiorari was granted.
Members of the church UDV receive communion by drinking hoasa, a tea brewed from plants unique to the Amazon Rain Forest. The tea contains DMT, a hallucinogen regulated under schedule 1 of the Controlled Substance Act.
After US Customs inspectors seized a hoasa shipment to the American UDV and threatened prosecution, the UDV filed suit for declaratory injunctive relief, alleging inter alia, that applying the Controlled Substance Act to the UDV’s sacramental hoasa use violates RFRA.
The Government responded that the challenged application would substantially burden a sincere exercise of religion, but argued that this burden did not violate RFRA because applying the Controlled Substance Act was the least restrictive means of advancing the compelling governmental interests: Protecting UDV member’s health and safety, preventing the diversion of hoasa from the church to recreational users, and complying with the 1971 United Nations Convention on psychotropic substances.
The District Court granted relief, concluding that because the parties’ evidence on health risks and diversion was equally balanced, the Government had failed to demonstrate a compelling interest justifying the substantial burden on the UDV. The Court also held that the 1971 Convention does not apply to hoasa. The Tenth Circuit affirmed.
An exception was made for the Native Americans using peyote in their rituals, and an exception cannot be made for the Native Americans and denied to other groups with similar issues-uniform application.
Roberts also stated that there was no evidence that the Native American use of peyote had ever become a street problem-thereby diminishing the Government’s argument of concern about the group allowing the tea to become a street drug.
1) Supreme Court Reporter 126A pp 1211-1225
(Cite as: 126A S. Ct. 1211)