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Church sues over drug tea

Members of a Brazilian-based Christian church in Ashland await a decision from U.S. District Court Judge Owen Panner over worshippers' right to drink hallucinogenic tea during services.

The Church of the Holy Light of the Queen took the case to federal court under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act after federal agents in 1999 arrested Jonathan Goldman, head of the Ashland-based branch of the Santo Daime (pronounced Die-May) sect, searched his home and seized a shipment of the disputed tea leaves.

Goldman is the religious leader ("Padrinho") of the Ashland church, which blends Christian theology with traditional indigenous religious beliefs from Brazil. In May 1999, Goldman was arrested and jailed for 12 hours before being released. No charges were filed against him, but the decision to prosecute "remains an open question pending the decision of the United States Department of Justice," the plaintiffs allege.

Panner heard arguments during a two-day trial that began Jan. 21 in Medford. Panner is expected to rule in the case within the next 45 days.

Church members are requesting Panner to declare those who import, create and ingest the tea to be within their rights. Otherwise, the government could seize further shipments of their sacramental tea, and also arrest and prosecute the church members, they say.

"All plaintiffs and members of the Church live under the constant threat of arrest, prosecution and imprisonment for quietly practicing their religion because the government refuses to respond to their requests that it abandon threats to arrest and prosecute Santo Daime Church members designated to transport the tea from Brazil to Ashland, Oregon, for services," the complaint reads.

Goldman and other plaintiffs in the lawsuit say the tea is an integral part of their communion with Jesus. They want to protect their right to drink ayahuasca tea from two Amazonian plants that contain the hallucinogenic drug dimethyltriptamine, or DMT.

"It is believed that only by taking the tea can a Church member have a direct experience with Jesus Christ, believed by members of the Church to be the savior."

According to plaintiffs, "without the tea, there is essentially no religion because it is an essential element of the church ritual in which the members have placed their faith. All church members imbibe the holy tea as a form of communion."

Court documents state the preparation of the tea requires the intensive labor of many church members and its creation is undertaken in prayer and accompanied by the singing of hymns. The document states the Oregon Board of Pharmacy has approved the use of ayahuasca tea for religious purposes.

Calls to the Ashland church were not returned Thursday.