US Orthodox Jews defend religious drug use [pg.8]

The struggle for religious freedom makes strange bedfellows. This was apparent last week when Agudath Israel of America and the Orthodox Union applauded a US Supreme Court decision that protected a Christian spiritual sect's right to use hallucinogens to connect with God. "It's not that we condone the use of drugs," said Rabbi Abba Cohen, Washington director and counsel of Agudath Israel in America. "We are not taking a position on the use of drugs and we do not support every religious practice, no matter how sincere. For instance, we reject Christian Scientists' demand to withhold medical treatment from a minor on religious grounds. But in this case, there was no compelling government interest to override religious freedom." The Christian sect is called Uniao do Vegetal, or Union of the Plants. The sect, which has about 130 members in New Mexico, was founded in the Amazon rain forest and combines traditional Brazilian beliefs with contemporary Christian teachings. One of Union of the Plants' central tenets is a belief that hoasca (pronounced wass-ca), a tea that contains the hallucinogenic drug diemethyltryptamine (DMT), which is illegal in the US, is sacred and that its use connects members to God. A related drug, rakefet, was recently classified as a dangerous drug by the Israeli Health Ministry and its sale prohibited. The US Supreme Court upheld a preliminary injunction barring federal prosecution of the congregation's leaders. The court said prosecutors failed to prove that enforcement of federal drug laws should override the Union of the Plants' right to freely practice its religion. Cohen and Nathan Diament, director of public policy for the OU, said the court decision on hoasca use had a Jewish angle. "The same principle would protect Orthodox Jews' right to build an eruv [a symbolic district within which Orthodox Jews can perform tasks otherwise forbidden on Shabbat in a public place], shecht [ritually slaughter] or perform a brit in cases where health laws or zoning laws might incidentally prohibit these things," said Diament. Cohen said, "Conceivably there could be a law that, for instance, makes it illegal to do a brit less than 30 days after birth for health reasons. Such a law collides with the Jewish obligation to circumcise on the eighth day. "The hoasca case would be a precedent for curtailing categorical, generally applicable federal laws that clash with religious freedom," he said.