Cannabis in America

First Church of Cannabis to Open Thanks to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Law

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One of the most recent applications of Indianapolis’ new Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is not exactly what supporters of the bill expected when Governor Mike Pence signed it into law in March. The bill was designed to ensure that personal religious liberties are not infringed upon, seeking to reflect a federal bill of the same name. Following this decision, a new church named the First Church of Cannabis, sought to gain recognition as a religious group. Its founder, Bill Levin, recently received IRS certification that it is officially a nonprofit charitable organization. This group, created in Indiana, plans to have its first service on July 1, which Levin says will include smoking marijuana. There’s just one problem: marijuana is illegal in Indiana. However, since this is in the context of a religious service, Levin believes he has the right to smoke marijuana without having his religious liberties infringed upon. This claim as a church will have to be defended legally, but Levin, in an interesting application of the new law, is pressing on with plans for the July 1 meeting, which is when RFRA takes effect.

Since its passing, the Indiana RFRA bill been very controversial, with individuals, businesses, and even government officials from other states stating their concerns that its language would allow discrimination against LGBT citizens for religious reasons. Although Pence oversaw a change to the law on April 4 that added a section saying that it cannot supersede local laws preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, many local Indiana municipalities do not have such anti-discrimination laws. Also, despite what some proponents of the bill have argued, Indiana’s RFRA bill is not the same as its federal counterpart. Before this bill, and currently in most states, laws that are neutral and generally applicable are only subject to a “rationality review,” and religious objections would be less likely to overrule basic laws. Under Indiana’s bill, even neutral and generally applicable laws are now subject to “strict scrutiny” and allow for religious objections to such laws.

Despite these issues, there is still a lot of support for the bill, especially among conservative media. Most proponents argue that it will not be used for discrimination, but rather it will protect religious observers from being forced to act against their faith. On his Fox News show, Todd Starnes argued that the Indiana bill does not allow for discrimination, although the language of the bill does seem to allow it. He mentions that “bakers, photographers, wedding planners, even pastors” are being attacked “simply because they choose to live out their religious beliefs.” In a heated (and not very productive) discussion on his show, Sean Hannity and two of his guests stated their fears of infringement upon religious rights, repeatedly arguing that discrimination is not the issue at hand. While many have stuck to this position, some, like constitutional lawyer Michael Farris, admit that the provision protects the practice of faith to the point of discrimination.

Upon hearing about the Church of Cannabis, the religious Right who fervently supported Indiana’s bill, are now singing a different tune. Bill O’Reilly, host of the O’Reilly Factor on Fox, discussed the bill on April 9 during his “Talking Points” segment. O’Reilly praised the Indiana bill for “providing people of faith with an avenue of legal challenge.” In a later show, O’Reilly labelled the first Church of Cannabis a “con,”  and pointed to the conflict between the church doctrine and the state’s marijuana laws. But, this is exactly what the Indiana law was intended to do: allow religious objections to supersede laws that a believer claims is in conflict with his or her faith. When discussing the implications of RFRA for the Church of Cannabis, O’reilly stated, “it’s really a different situation.” Is it a different situation because the religion in question is not Christianity? If there is a strict investigation to determine if the Church of Cannabis is a genuine religious group, should the same apply to all religious objections?

While the First Church of Cannabis has to legally prove that it is a church before the protections of Indiana’s bill are applicable, should a Christian believer have to prove their faith and the legitimacy of their place of worship before being allowed to pose a religious objection under RFRA? In her statement on the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated that she believed in “keeping the courts ‘out of the business of evaluating’ . . . the sincerity with which an asserted religious belief is held.” And while courts have historically analyzed the sincerity of religious beliefs, it has only been on a basic factual level.

The development of this new church in Indiana has brought to light two issues with Indiana’s RFRA. The first is that, when applied in a context different from what supporters originally imagined, the support for its effects begins to wane. A law about religious freedom that is only meant to affect certain religions violates its own principles of protecting religious liberty; however, this is the exact context under which the bill was passed. Secondly, the validity of concern over religious freedom is subject to question. Given the rulings of the Supreme Court in Employment Division v. Smith, Church of Lukumi Babalau Aye vs. City of Hialeah, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and most recently in EEOC v. Abercrombie and Fitch, it appears that religious liberty is alive and thriving. In this situation it is almost certainly the rights of LGBT citizens that are under the greatest threat. Moreover, despite what some have claimed about the issue, the Supreme Court does not allow religious rights to trump civil rights. In the 1968 case of Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, and in the 1983 case of Bob Jones University v. United States, the Court ruled that a religious defense could not be used to prohibit black people from an amusement park, or prevent interracial dating at a university. In both of these cases, as well as others, the Court ruled that a “compelling government interest” can supersede religious liberty and civil rights have consistently been one such interest.

Maurin Mwombela
Maurin Mwombela is a member of the University of Pennsylvania class of 2017 and was a Law Street Media Fellow for the Summer 2015. He now blogs for Law Street, focusing on politics. Contact Maurin at



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