First Church of Cannabis sues over marijuana laws

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INDIANAPOLIS –  A pot-smoking church sued the city of Indianapolis and state of Indiana on Wednesday, claiming laws against possession and use of marijuana infringe on its religious beliefs.

The First Church of Cannabis, formed as a test of Indiana’s new religious objections law, filed its lawsuit in Marion Circuit Court in Indianapolis, naming multiple defendants including Gov. Mike Pence and state and local law enforcement officers.

The lawsuit claims church members believe marijuana is a sacrament that "brings us closer to ourselves and others. It is our fountain of health, our love, curing us from illness and depression. We embrace it with our whole heart and spirit, individually and as a group."

The lawsuit says Indiana laws that make possession of marijuana or visiting a place where it is used a punishable offense place a burden on the church’s exercise of religion, violating the state and U.S. constitutions.

"We are taking legal action today to ensure love has no barriers in our land," church founder Bill Levin, 59, said at a news conference in front of the Statehouse. "Today we invite the state of Indiana and all its leaders to joyfully meet us in a court of law for clarifications on our core religious values. We look forward to engaging them on the high plane of dignity and discipline, with love and compassion in our hearts, to find a swift and sensible answer for our questions of religious equality."

There was no marijuana during the church’s first service July 1, which was attended by more than 100 people and observed by more than 20 police officers. Local officials had threatened arrests if marijuana was present. A second service was planned for Wednesday evening, and it was not clear whether marijuana would be present.

The Indiana Attorney General’s Office issued a statement saying it would file its clients’ response to the lawsuit "at the appropriate time."

Levin founded the First Church of Cannabis on March 26, the day Pence signed Indiana’s religious objections measure into law. The IRS granted the church tax-exempt status in May.

Levin said the church has more than 1,000 members and is built "on the cornerstone of love, compassion and good health" and isn’t just a place for its members to get high.

Indiana’s law sparked protests and boycott threats this spring amid concerns it could provide a legal defense to discriminate against gays, lesbians and others. Lawmakers later revised the law to address those concerns.

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Whoops: Indiana’s anti-gay ‘religious freedom’ act opens the door for the First Church of Cannabis

Tom Boggioni

Tom Boggioni
29 Mar 2015 at 20:55 ET

Rastafarian businessman (Shutterstock)

Rastafarian businessman (Shutterstock)

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In a classic case of “unintended consequences,” the recently signed Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in Indiana may have opened the door for the establishment of the First Church of Cannabis in the Hoosier State.

While Governor Mike Pence (R) was holding a signing ceremony for the bill allowing businesses and individuals to deny services to gays on religious grounds or values, paperwork for the First Church of Cannabis Inc. was being filed with the Secretary of State’s office, reports RTV6.

Church founder Bill Levin announced on his Facebook page that the church’s registration has been approved, writing, “Status: Approved by Secretary of State of Indiana – “Congratulations your registration has been approved!” Now we begin to accomplish our goals of Love, Understanding, and Good Health.”

Levin is currently seeking $4.20 donations towards his non-profit church.

According to Indiana attorney and political commentator Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, Indiana legislators, in their haste to protect the religious values and practices of their constituents, may have unwittingly put the state in an awkward position with those who profess to smoke pot as a religious sacrament.

Shabazz pointed out that it is still illegal to smoke pot in Indiana, but wrote, “I would argue that under RFRA, as long as you can show that reefer is part of your religious practices, you got a pretty good shot of getting off scot-free.”

Noting that RFRA supporters say the bill “only spells out a test as to whether a government mandate would unduly burden a person’s faith and the government has to articulate a compelling interest for that rule and how it would be carried out in the least restrictive manner,” Shabazz contends the law may tie the state’s hands.

“So, with that said, what ‘compelling interest’ would the state of Indiana have to prohibit me from using marijuana as part of my religious practice?” he asked. ” 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.)”

Shabazz concluded, “I want a front row seat at the trial that we all know is going to happen when all this goes down.”

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