Americans who worship at the altar of marijuana had better not look to the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom to keep them out of jail, suggests one recent case.

That message was sent by the Florida Supreme Court to the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, a Miami sect that uses marijuana as an integral part of its worship service. The U.S. Supreme Court has shown no inclination to send a different message since it refused even to consider the issue.

Florida and U.S. officials have mounted a pincer attack against the Coptics. State authorities obtained an injunction against a church member barring her from using her home as a church, in violation of zoning regulations. It also prhibits the use of marijuana there. vThe Florida Supreme Court upheld the injunction.

The other half of the attack is being played out in a federal district court in Miami, where other church members are being prosecuted on charges of violating federal drug prohibitions. The trials were scheduled to get under way this month, although legal maneuvering has caused postponement until at least February.

The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church is not the first religious group in U.S. history to encounter difficulties in its attempts to find religious freedom. Many of the early colonies, though populated by settlers fleeing religious persecution in Europe, were not safe havens for groups who came with rites and rituals different than those already established. In an attempt to end intolerance in the New World, the guarantee of freedom of religion received star billing in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights -- prohibiting Congress and later individual states as well, from interfering with the free exercise of religion.

Nurtured by the protection of the First Amendment, various cults and religions sprang up. Snake handlers, poison drinkers and mystics of all kinds flourished in some of the atypicalsects.

The mix of drugs and religion is familiar to the region, dating back to ancient Indian rites. The flower children of the '60s incorporated marijuana and hallucinogens into their forms of worship.

The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church comes closer to the Indian experience than to the religions that sprang up a decade or so ago. While the Constitution clearly allows legal authorities to prosecute persons who claim religious beliefs solely as a cover to engage in illegal activities, the constitutionality is not so apparent where the illegal activity is an integral part of the worship service of a group that meets existing legal standards as a religion. And while marijuana is an important part of the rite of the Coptic Church, its doctrine extends to other matters.

Even the Florida Supreme Court found the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church to be authentic religion as with regard to the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The Miami-based Coptic group claims links with the 6,000 year-old Coptic Church, but its more recent origins can be traced to the Rastafarians of Marcus Garvey's movement urging American blacks to look to Africa as a holy land. Rastafarianism called itself after Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie's name as a commoner. Selassie's crowning as emperor was seen as the fulfillment of Garvey's prophecy to "Look to Africa when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is near."

Restafarians established settlements in Jamaica where believers lived together and convened to worship together. One of these missions became known as the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, whose doctrine feature is a process called "reasoning," which involves a philosophical and theological dialogue accompanied by the smoking of marijuana.

Marijuana is the sacrament of the church, replacing wine as the symbolic spirit of Christ. Deemed the spiritual power which unites men in one spirit, marijuana is smoked by church members three times a day, during morning, afternoon and evening worship services. Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church members contend that through marijuana or "ganja," its Jamaican name, man is able to look at God by looking within himself, the embodiment of God on earth.

Attorney Milton M. Ferrell, Jr., who represents the Coptics in their legal battles, contended in a telephone interview that church members adhere to such strict doctrines and dietary laws that others are hardly likely to adopt the Coptic's way of life just to smoke marijuana.

Having qualified as a legitimate church, the Coptics cleared their first legal hurdle but there remained one indisputable point: Governmental interference with religious practice is permissable if the state can "demonstrate a compelling interest" superceding the constitutional protection. To establish such a compelling interest, a state cannot offer just any reasonable justification. It must be one that is sufficient to overcome the strong policy in favor of not interfering with religious practices.

For instance, constitutional protection of the freedom of religion clause takes a back seat when life is at stake or when a substantial health emergency threatens a community. Ordering medical care for an endangered child despite religious objections by the parents is an example of this kind of compelling interest. Other infringements that have passed constitutional muster are the compulsion that an individual be vaccinated despite objections based on religious handling of poisonous snakes.

The Florida Supreme Court found the legislature's determination that cannabis is a dangerous drug sufficiently compelling to negate the church members' constitutional rights. This is not the type of strict scrutiny to which government attempts to regulate First Amendment rights are usually subjected, especially in light of the many medical experts that the church had rounded up to contest the finding of "dangerousness." The ill effects of marijuana remain a debatable issue. While states may freely ban its common use, interference with it in a religious context should require more convincing proof.

Florida courts undoubtedly were influenced against the church by the claim that the Coptics freely distributed marijuana to "children and adults, members and nonmembers." The Florida Supreme Court was thus able to distinguish the Coptics' claim from an earlier case where the California Supreme Court prohibited the state from interfering with the use of peyote by adult Navajo Indians as part of their religion.

Attoney Farrell charged that the finding of casual distribution was based upon only one instance when a nonmember juvenile smoked marijuana at a church service, a youth who had gained entry by lying to guards posted by the Coptics, he said.

While most of us are unlikely to take the cause of the Coptics seriously, the guarantee of religious freedom is not reserved for those religions to which the majority of us subscribe. In fact, the real worth of any constitutional protection may be determined by how well it guarantees the rights of people on the fringe. When the criminal trials begin in Miami, at stake will be the freedom of church members as well as the religious liberty of the Coptics. tPerhaps the possibility of prison sentences being meted out will result in the application of the more serious First Amendment test to the Coptics' claim.