Here is a problem that we have brought upon ourselves. It is not an aberration from our historical trajectory, but a completion of it.
In Indiana—not Colorado?—the Secretary of State has granted the First Church of Cannabis IRS tax exempt status. The Secretary couldn’t give a reason why getting together in the same building to celebrate the joys of marijuana was any different than, say, Catholics or Anglicans or Lutherans getting together in the same room and drinking wine. You can get stoned on weed or drunk on wine: both are intoxicating and both can therefore be considered a sacrament.
That is just what the First Church of Cannabis’s founder, and self-proclaimed Minister of Love, Bill Levin, asserts. He was savvy enough to pull this legal parody off by taking advantage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
You may remember Indiana’s RFRA when it was in the news a bit ago—in fact, I wrote about it for tothesource. The original goal of the Act was (boiling it down) to protect Christian businesses from being compelled to act against their religious beliefs—the most famous example being the Christian baker being forced to provide a cake for a gay wedding.
How’s that connected to the First Church of Cannabis? In Indiana’s RFRA, we find that religion is entirely undefined: “‘exercise of religion’ includes any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” The law then declares that “a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion,…”
What could be more burdensome than disallowing folks gathered in the First Church of Cannabis not to smoke marijuana? What can prevent Bill Levin from claiming that a common dedication to smoking marijuana is a religion since the law implicitly defines religion in terms that allow any claim of religion to qualify?
Therefore, the First Church of Cannabis must be protected by the First Amendment’s guarantees: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…”
There’s more. The origin of Indiana’s RFRA is actually the RFRA passed by Congress in 1993. Why did Congress pass its Religious Freedom Restoration Act? It was responding to the Supreme Court decision in Employment Division, Oregon Department of Human Resources v Smith (1990) that declared that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause did not grant an exemption from the state’s drug laws to members of a Native American religion that used the hallucinogen peyote in its religious services.
Congress rushed to their rescue with the RFRA, giving the national legislative stamp to the Native American Church that mixes Christian religious belief with the use of peyote considered as a sacrament.
Well, if peyote can be considered a sacrament, and the Native American Church is a true church under law, then try to give one reason why the Church of Cannabis should not be a church filled with sacramental smoke, enjoying all the benefits of the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, etc.?
What counts as a religion? If it is not defined, then anything counts, as long as someone says it is his or her religion. The Free Exercise clause will then protect any illegal substance use that anyone cares to claim as sacramental.
The First Church of Heroin. The First Church of Methamphetamine. The First Church of Cocaine. The First Church of LSD.
One might object, “Oh don’t be such a slippery-sloping alarmist. What’s the harm? A little weed is uplifting, and potheads are generally inoffensive and amusing. And besides, states are speeding to follow Colorado to legalization.”
To offer at the least the obvious, marijuana is not only a gateway drug to far more destructive drugs, but it has also been increasing in potency over the last thirty years—and will continue to do so. In 1983, the THC content (tetrahydracannabinol, the psychoactive constituent of weed) was only 4%. Today, the average THC content is about 13%, although labs have found strains as high as 37%, bringing it closer to the highs gotten from cocaine and heroin. These are the days of genetic and chemical manipulation. Sky highs are the limit.
But let’s return to the heart of the problem: the notion that anything anyone claims to be a religion thereby is a religion, and hence that its proponents can further claim a right to Free Exercise protection, as well as all the benefits of tax-exempt status.
This “anything counts” is not a new notion. One of the chief historical culprits—and one of the most influential philosophers in America—was the 17th century British philosopher John Locke. Locke was, at best, a Deist, who believed that all the battling between religious sects could be resolved by declaring that religion is an entirely private and subjective thing.
True religion, insisted Locke, “consists in an inward persuasion of the mind,” not in any external creeds or alleged revelatory events. In regard to the substance of faith, “Every man…has the supreme and absolute Authority of judging for himself.” There are as many churches, claimed Locke, as there are “inward persuasions of the mind,” and all must be equally tolerated, and protected by law—as long as its adherents are law-abiding. In short, truth must be given up for safety amidst intractable religious pluralism.
Locke’s understanding of religious tolerance, rooted in the notion of complete subjectivity of any and all religious claims, has become even more influential than it was at our founding. It is behind our current interpretation of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause, and that is why “religion” is now defined so broadly that there is nothing that doesn’t count, including Satanism, Wicca, and even secular atheism itself.
The even deeper roots of our problem with undefined religion go back to the early 16th century atheist philosopher, the notorious Machiavelli. Machiavelli dismissed Christianity as just one more irrational religion, no better and probably much worse than ancient pagan religions. He thereby created the category of “religion” and put Christianity in it as one more specimen of irrationality. All religions were false, therefore they could be all classed together under one category.
So began the modern notion that all religions are equal—that is, equally foolish. Religion was therefore undefined and (as far as truth goes) undefinable because it is completely subjective. Anything anyone happens to believe counts as a religion. Locke’s position was a slightly reworked iteration of Machiavelli’s view.
And here we are, heirs to both in our legal system. If you still think that there must be some limit to what can count as a religion, there is a Supreme Court case waiting in the wings, a kind of latent time-bomb waiting to go off, United States v Seeger (1965). The original case dealt with a conscientious objector who had no religious beliefs, but still wanted to claim the status that had only been accorded to religious-based pacifists. The Court found out that he could count as a conscientious objector because his anti-war stance “occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God of those” who are religious in the usual, traditional sense.
The Supreme Court works by precedent, and is often steered by earlier cases unearthed and used for entirely new purposes. Expect United States v Seeger to be rediscovered and deployed by those who want to claim tax-exempt status for anything from porn use, gambling, and drug use, to stamp collecting, car racing, and fishing—that is, for anything that happens to occupy the place that God used to fill.
For the Church of Cannabis, I am sure that marijuana has taken the place of God.