Mark Alesia, Indianapolis Star Published 5:41 p.m. ET July 7, 2018
The First Church of Cannabis went up in smoke in Marion Circuit Court.
A judge Friday dismissed the church’s 3-year-old case against the city and state that contended the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, RFRA, protected the use of marijuana as a sacrament.
An attorney for the Indianapolis church said earlier in the week he would appeal if the church lost.
Bill Levin, the church’s founder and “Grand Poobah,” wrote on Facebook on Saturday, “It’s far from over. We are just getting started.”
In her order dismissing the case, judge Sheryl Lynch did not address the defense’s contention that the church’s members are insincere about practicing a religion.
She ruled that the city and state satisfied a crucial aspect of the RFRA law: showing the state had a “compelling interest” in not carving out a limited exception in marijuana laws.
“The undisputed evidence demonstrates that permitting a religious exemption to laws that prohibit the use and possession of marijuana would hinder drug enforcement efforts statewide and negatively impact public health and safety,” she wrote.
If the church were allowed to use marijuana legally, the judge asked, would law enforcement officers have to make “case-by-case determinations during criminal investigations as to whether an individual’s religious beliefs legally justify” using the drug.
“It is compelling and appropriate,” she wrote, “to treat the illicit drug market in a unitary way.”
The church, which is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a nonprofit corporation, argued that the “government cannot determine what religious beliefs are to be protected.”
“Whether one agrees with the beliefs of the church is irrelevant. The church is a religious organization engaged in exercise of religion.”
Lynch, however, said the church failed to say who would supply the marijuana, how it would be consumed, where it would be stored and how it would be secured.
“Or even,” she added, “where the dividing line between ‘sacramental’ and recreational use might lie (if one exists).”
Attorney general Curtis Hill issued a news release praising the decision and saying the church is “a pro-marijuana political crusade that turned into a legal stunt.”
“I appreciate the court’s fidelity to both the law and to common sense,” Hill said. “Indiana’s laws against the possession, sale and use of marijuana protect the health, safety and well-being of Hoosiers statewide. When the state has justifiable and compelling interests at stake, no one can evade the law simply by describing their illegal conduct as an exercise of religious faith.”
On Facebook on Saturday, Levin replied, “Cannabis is safer than Curtis Hill.”
Hill is facing calls for his resignation after four women alleged he touched them inappropriately during a party in March after the final day of the legislative session.
The church was introduced to much fanfare in July 2015 amid a heavy police presence and some protesters. Inside its doors, there was a band whose set included Rick James’ “Mary Jane,” dancing in the pews as congregants batted around balloons, testimonies of the benefits of marijuana and even a comedian.
Church members recited the “Diety Dozen,” a twist on the Ten Commandments, including “Don’t be a (jerk). Treat everyone with love as an equal”
There was not, however, marijuana at the church. At least not officially.
Levin said at the time that the church thought it would be best to contest the ban on marijuana in a civil lawsuit rather than in criminal court.
Levin still has an ongoing defamation lawsuit against former Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Chief Rick Hite. In the days before the church’s inaugural service, Hite compared Levin to Jim Jones, a 1970s cult leader who instigated a mass murder-suicide of more than 900 of his followers.
Levin called Hite “openly prejudiced about the birth of a new religion.”