The Supreme Court accepted a Bush administration request to rule on a clash between religious freedom and drug-control law yesterday, announcing that it will review a lower court's ruling that blocked enforcement of a federal ban on a church's importation of hallucinogens.
The court said it will hear the government's appeal of a 2002 injunction issued by a New Mexico federal judge giving an Albuquerque group, O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal (UDV), the right to import hoasca, a psychedelic substance brewed in herbal tea, for use in certain rituals.
The judge's ruling, which was upheld last year by a sharply divided Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, cited the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The law says the government may not "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion" unless it uses carefully limited means to achieve a "compelling goal."
Congress enacted RFRA to counter Employment Division v. Smith, a 1990 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the denial of employment benefits to two men fired for using peyote in a religious ritual.
"[A]n individual's religious beliefs [do not] excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the opinion for the court in that case.
In enacting the RFRA, a bipartisan majority in Congress expressed the view that this standard was too restrictive of religious practice.
But in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the RFRA could not be applied to the states. The case granted yesterday, Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal, No. 04-1084, arises in the context of federal law enforcement because UDV's hoasca supply was intercepted at the border. Hoasca, which contains the hallucinogen dimethyltryptamine, comes from Brazil.
The Bush administration argues that importing hoasca would defeat the purpose of drug-control laws and violate the 1971 U.N. Convention on Psychotropic Substances, which binds the United States to battle international trafficking in hallucinogens.
The court, however, has denied a Bush administration request to restore the ban on imports pending the conclusion of this case.
"The members of the UDV believe that hoasca is sacred, and that their sacramental use of hoasca connects them to God," the 150-member group's attorneys argued in their brief.
Separately, the court announced yesterday that it would decide whether police may search a private residence without a warrant if one of two occupants gives them permission but the other refuses.
The court said it would grant a request by the state of Georgia to review a ruling last year in which the state's Supreme Court said prosecutors could not use cocaine evidence against a Sumter County man that was found after his wife invited police to look for it.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that police could search a home if only one of the people who controlled it was present and that person gave consent. But the Georgia Supreme Court said that did not apply to a case in which both were present.
In its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Georgia noted that the federal appeals courts and state supreme courts are divided on the question.
The Georgia Supreme Court's decision, the state argues in its appeal petition, "focuses arbitrarily on the rights of the objecting occupant, to the detriment of the consenting occupant."
As the circumstances of the case, Georgia v. Randolph, No. 04-1067, suggest, the issue is likely to arise in the context of domestic disputes. Scott Fitz Randolph's wife called police to their home on July 6, 2001, because she feared that he had abducted their child. She blamed Randolph's cocaine abuse for breaking up their marriage.
After one officer asked Randolph for permission to search the house and he refused, a second officer asked the wife and she agreed, directing police to an upstairs room where they found Randolph's cocaine.
Randolph's attorney urged the court to reject the appeal, arguing that each state has the "right to extend the protection of one's privacy."
In both cases granted yesterday, oral argument will take place in the fall, and decisions are likely by July 2006.