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FormerLegalSecy

In The News - Criminal Law vs. Religion

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In our state's capital city the police recently executed a search warrant, raided an establishment, and arrested 2 people for possession and distribution of marijuana.

 

The place that was raided was the Lion of Judah Rastafarian Church, which considers marijuana to be a sacrament.

 

Since the Lion of Judah Church was only founded a few months ago, or at least that branch of it at that particular location, a lot of people, apparently including the police, think it is just an excuse for a drug house.  Setting that aside for a moment...

 

What court is qualified to judge whether something is or is not a church?  What would count as evidence for & against?  My understanding is that courts tend to accept that anything claiming to be a church is a church (and some people don't like the tax implications of that, but the IRS also does not like to get involved in determining what is or isn't a church either).

 

I guess another question is, when does religious practice trump criminal law (if ever)?  And if it doesn't, what would prevent states from criminalizing the religious practices of any religion they would prefer not exist in their state?

 

Inquiring minds want to know.

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What would prevent a group from declaring a criminal act to be a religious practice to avoid any laws prohibiting it?

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1 hour ago, FormerLegalSecy said:

I guess another question is, when does religious practice trump criminal law (if ever)?  And if it doesn't, what would prevent states from criminalizing the religious practices of any religion they would prefer not exist in their state?

 

Inquiring minds want to know.

 

Religious practice trumps a statute (whether criminal or civil) when that practice is protected by the Constitution and the government lacks the compelling state interest needed to overcome that protection. For example, the Amish have a well established belief that goes against participation in Social Security programs. That belief is protected by the First Amendment and as a result the Amish legally do not have to pay FICA taxes nor do they claim Social Security or Medicare benefits. They are completely outside that system due to their religious beliefs.

 

As to use of illegal drugs, religious belief and practice can overcome criminal drug laws. Some Native American tribes have the right to use peyote, which otherwise would be illegal, for their religious practice. Of course, the tribes had been using peyote in a religious context well before it was banned, making the case it was truly a religious matter easier to prove.

 

It becomes harder when a new religion pops up that no one ever heard of before and that religion has as a major part of it the use of illegal drugs. The suspicion will be that the claimed religion is merely a sham designed primarily to get around the prohibition of the drug. That makes it more of a challenge to the persons claiming it is truly for religion to establish that to the courts.

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17 hours ago, Tax_Counsel said:

It becomes harder when a new religion pops up that no one ever heard of before and that religion has as a major part of it the use of illegal drugs.

The Rastafari "religion" has been around since the 1930's.  It's roots are in Jamaica.  There are around 700,000 members around the world although they are not centralized and have no "leader" like a pope or bishop.  Haile Selassie  was a Rastafarian and some considered him a prophet.  Bob Marley was also a Rasta.

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3 hours ago, LegalwriterOne said:

The Rastafari "religion" has been around since the 1930's.  It's roots are in Jamaica.  There are around 700,000 members around the world although they are not centralized and have no "leader" like a pope or bishop.  Haile Selassie  was a Rastafarian and some considered him a prophet.  Bob Marley was also a Rasta.

 

My post was meant to be general information rather than addressing Rastafari in particular so my comments about a "new" religion weren't meant to be about Rastafarian adherents specifically. Frankly I don't know enough about Rastafarian beliefs and practices to know if it would be considered a religion or not. And if it is, I don't whether smoking weed is truly a significant part of that religious practice. Those are things that the Rastafari followers would need to establish in court if they seek to gain exemption from the the marijuana laws based on religious grounds.

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There are multiple cases holding that the Free Exercise Claus in the First Amendment to the federal Constitution does not allow religious use of otherwise illegal drugs without consequence.  See, e.g., Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

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