The First Church of Cannabis will host its inaugural service on Wednesday, but don’t expect any cannabis. The church’s founder Bill Levin said on Tuesday that the church will not include the drug also known as marijuana due to advance warnings from local law enforcement.
Marijuana is currently illegal in Indiana for both medical and recreational use, so the church could test the application of the state’s new religious freedom law. Marion County prosecutor Terry Curry and Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Chief Rick Hite held a news conference on June 26 to warn about arrests if people possess marijuana.
Levin said he does not want the question of marijuana possession to be considered in criminal court because he thinks the church will have a better chance of fighting in civil court.
“We will not be dragged into criminal court for their advantage. We will meet them in a civil court where the laws are clear about religious persecution,” he wrote on Facebook. “We do not start fights. We Finish Them!”
Cannibis is listed as the church’s sacrament in its doctrine, and Levin said the church will plan to grow hemp, though it will not buy or sell marijuana. Marijuana is a nickname for a strain of cannabis and both come from the hemp plant.
“I’m sorry, we have religious persecution here,” Levin told The Washington Post on Tuesday.
The church was approved in March by Indiana’s secretary of state in direct response to a new religious freedom law. At the time, the state was in the middle of a political battle over the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, a law some say would allow business owners to discriminate but which others would allow business owners to protect their conscience.
Levin said his lawyers will be filing a civil action after the state’s RFRA goes into effect Wednesday, but he declined to go into specifics.
“We have a lot of beautiful minds who are digging through law books,” Levin said. “I don’t have any of the details. I should not speak without the legal department because I will say something wrong and they will yell at me again. I’m not going to speak about what legal action we’re going to take. Please, don’t get me yelled at again.”
In March, Indiana’s Secretary of State Connie Lawson approved the church as a religious corporation with the stated intent “to start a church based on love and understanding with compassion for all.”
Levin has said he established the church as a test of the state’s RFRA, which prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s ability to practice his or her religion — unless the government can show it has a compelling interest to do so. The government must choose the least restrictive way to achieve its goal. The question becomes whether the government has a compelling interest in Levin’s church, which intrinsically includes possession of marijuana.
The church argues that RFRA, which limits government encroachment on religious freedoms, essentially legalizes the use of marijuana at church. Its inaugural service is scheduled for noon Wednesday in Indianapolis.
The original federal RFRA law in 1993 was passed with bipartisan support after a U.S. Supreme Court case involving two Native American counselors who were fired for using peyote during religious rituals. The court ruled that religion was no excuse for breaking a law banning the drug’s use. Justices later ruled that RFRA did not apply at the state level, causing some states to begin to enact their own versions of the legislation. More recently, the law has been wrapped up in gay rights debates over whether business owners should be allowed to decline services for same-sex marriages.
Levin, who owns a consulting and marketing company called Levin Consulting in Indianapolis, said he is not religious. The Internal Revenue Service granted Levin’s church tax-exempt status, and Levin purchased a building that used to be owned by a Pentecostal church. The church, he says, has 1,000 members and has raised almost $20,000.
The church likely would not have been protected before Indiana’s RFRA, said John Inazu of Washington University School of Law. The federal RFRA would not have been available to them, and a straight First Amendment free exercise challenge would likely have been unsuccessful.
Just because Levin has the tax exemption does not exempt from restrictions against marijuana use under Indiana law, Inazu said. He might have standing to bring a challenge under the state RFRA if he is arrested for marijuana use and claims a free exercise right to violate the state’s criminal law.
“The key question here, it seems to me, is whether the claim to marijuana use is a sincerely held religious belief,” Inazu said in an email. “The standard for establishing sincerity in religious freedom cases is highly deferential to the claimant, but courts usually find a way to smoke out insincerity.”
Levin said he couldn’t estimate how many people will attend Wednesday’s service.
“Unlike religions that have sin boxes where you get your judgment from someone behind a curtain, we have someone who comes up to the podium to celebrate something wonderful that happened in their life,” he said.
The service will include a sermon, an offering and people’s testimonies.
“Of course we have church announcements because if you don’t, everyone gets upset without the church announcements,” he said. “At the end, we’re supposed to light up. We’ll use tobacco in this particular case to fulfill the ritualistic need. I look forward to a future where we will not be burned by religious persecution right around the corner.”
The church will be every Wednesday.