Does Indiana's Religious Freedom Law Cover Marijuana Church?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on June 04, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

All those protestors against Indiana's new Religious Freedom Restoration Act can put this news in their pipe and smoke it: the IRS has granted tax exempt status to the First Church of Cannabis.

The church had already been recognized as a religious corporation by the state of Indiana and plans its first services for July 1, the day the state's RFRA goes into effect. So will the new law protect toking up in a state that currently bans all marijuana possession and use?

At the Altar of Pot

"The law goes into effect at noon, and we'll start our service at 12:01 p.m.," said Bill Levin, the church's founder. The planned service will include live music, storytelling, and discussion regarding the foundational tenets of the faith (which include "Don't be an a**hole"), followed by the use of the church's sacramental marijuana. "At the end," Levin told The Huffington Post, "we'll all light up and celebrate the birth of a new religion."

Here's the thing -- Indiana's governor, Mike Pence, who whole-heartedly supported the RFRA under which Levin and his church will claim the religious freedom to smoke weed, also staunchly opposed any relaxation of Indiana's pot penalties, some of the most stringent in the nation. So who'll win this holy hemp showdown?

Religious Reefer

Indiana attorney and political commentator Abdul-Hakim Shabazz thinks the state will have a hard time coming up with a compelling interest that would allow it to prohibit church use of marijuana and therefore burden their exercise of religion, especially considering the Catholic church's use of wine during services, even to minors:

I would argue marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol and wine used in religious ceremonies. Marijuana isn't any more 'addictive' than alcohol and wine is used in some religious ceremonies. And marijuana isn't any more of a 'gateway' drug than the wine used in a religious ceremony will make you go out and buy hard liquor. (At least not on Sunday.)

The first question is: is this really a fight that Indiana wants, or wants to risk losing? With all the mud on its face from the initial round of RFRA fighting, the state may not be willing to get back in the ring. But with its history of aggressive pot policing, can it afford to turn a blind eye to citizens' disregard of existing drug laws?

It's as much of a political question as a legal one, and there won't be any telling which way it will go until at least July 1, when the RFRA goes into effect and the Church of Cannabis goes into practice.

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