Newseum First Amendment Newsroom Diversity
First Amendment Center
First Amendment Text
Research Packages
First Amendment Publications

Today's News
Related links
Contact Us

spacer graphic

Federal judge refuses to intervene in Utah peyote case

By The Associated Press


Printer-friendly page

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge has refused to intervene in the case against a church that uses the hallucinogen peyote in its ceremonies.

Authorities in Utah County brought criminal charges against James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney, leader of the Oklevueha Earthwalks Native American Church, for allegedly distributing the hallucinogen peyote, made from the flower of a cactus.

Mooney's lawyers say he has a right to distribute the drug as part of religious ceremonies.

State and federal law specifically exempts members of the Native American Church — a confederation of American Indian religious groups with no strong centralized leadership — from the peyote prohibition. Mooney says his church is part of this group, but prosecutors claim that because many members of his church are not Indians, they are breaking the law.

Mooney says he is a Native American, while county prosecutor David Wayment says Mooney is not a member of a federally recognized tribe.

Wayment did not immediately return a call yesterday afternoon. He has argued in the past that the peyote exemption requires that users be members of a recognized tribe.

But Mooney says the use of peyote is central to his faith.

"It's the basic essence of the religion," Mooney said.

He likened the use of peyote in his church to the sacrament of Eucharist taken by Catholics.

"Peyote is the spirit of God the Father and God the Mother," Mooney said.

Attorney Kathryn Collard, who represents the church, says the Native American Church peyote exemption is racially neutral and there is no requirement that members belong to an official tribe.

Many of the 1,800 chapters in the Native American Church allow non-Indian members, she said.

Collard says she is confident her clients will be acquitted of the criminal charges.

"But in the meantime, they're prohibited from practicing their freedom of religion," she said.

While the state charges were pending, Mooney sued in federal court, saying Utah County deputies illegally raided his home and church last October. Church leaders also claimed the prosecution amounted to harassment.

But U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball on June 18 refused to step into the dispute, saying that Mooney must first argue his First Amendment claim in state court.

Collard plans to appeal Kimball's ruling to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a related case, a Utah judge ruled last month that the federal peyote exemption does not protect non-Native Americans. The ruling came in the state's case against Nicolas Stark, a member of Mooney's church who is charged with second-degree felony possession with intent to distribute for possession of peyote.


Utah high court to hear arguments on peyote use by non-Indians
Two men argue that they have same right as tribal members to use drug during religious ceremonies.  01.11.02