Source: LA Times
Date: 11 December 2004

Church Gets High Tea for Christmas

Supreme Court rules a New Mexico parish can drink a hallucinogenic brew in its holiday rites while awaiting a final decision on the practice


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. Supreme Court sided Friday with a New Mexico church wanting to use hallucinogenic tea as part of its Christmas services, despite objections from the federal government that the tea was illegal and potentially dangerous.

The high court lifted a temporary stay issued last week against using the hoasca tea while it decided whether the Brazil-based O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal was permitted to make it a permanent part of its services.

The legal battle began after federal agents seized 30 gallons of the tea in a 1999 raid on the Santa Fe home of the church's U.S. president, Jeffrey Bronfman.

Bronfman sued the government for the right to use the tea and the church won a preliminary injunction, which was upheld by 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. The Bush administration then took the case to the Supreme Court.

"They're delighted," attorney Nancy Hollander said of the church members she represented. "They're so thrilled that they can celebrate Christmas for the first time since 1998."

Bronfman and attorneys for the government did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

The church, which has about 140 members in the United States and 8,000 worldwide, said the herbal brew is a central sacrament in its religious practice, which is a blend of Christian beliefs and traditions rooted in the Amazon basin.

Hollander said the tea is drunk in a ritual similar to the Catholic Communion. Church members then sit in a circle and meditate; they believe the tea brings them closer to God.

The tea is brewed from plants found in the Amazon River Basin and contains DMT, which officials say is a controlled substance under an international treaty.

However, Bronfman's complaint contends the tea is "non-addictive, is not harmful to human health and poses none of the risks commonly found with the use of certain controlled substances."

The church had drawn parallels to federal protection for members of the Native American Church using peyote, which also has hallucinogenic properties.

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