Indiana's First Church of Cannabis opens July 1

by Gregory Tomlin |

(REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar/FILE PHOTO)A Hindu holy man, or sadhu, smokes marijuana in a chillum on the premises of Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu February 17, 2015. Hindu holy men from Nepal and India come to this temple to take part in the Maha Shivaratri festival annually for holiday when it is legal to smoke the otherwise illegal drug. Celebrated by Hindu devotees all over the world, Shivaratri is dedicated to Lord Shiva, and holy men mark the occasion by praying, smoking marijuana or smearing their bodies with ashes.

INDIANAPOLIS (Christian Examiner) – The first pot-smoking priest in Indiana's new First Church of Cannabis will lead his congregation in hymn singing and a sermon July 1, the same day the state's new religious freedom law protecting pastors who refuse to perform same-sex marriages takes effect, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Members of the congregation will also offer testimonies and then, assuming local law enforcement officers do not conduct a drug raid, they will all light their marijuana pipes and cigarettes for a new type of "worship" experience – getting high.

More than 31,000 people now follow the so-called "church." Other groups calling themselves marijuana churches have also sprung up in Oregon and California, seemingly in the belief that if marijuana use is part of a religious ceremony it is protected. The Supreme Court, however, has ruled it is not.

Bill Levin, the church's founder, calls himself the "Grand Poohbah and Minister of Love." He told reporters he conceived the idea of the cannabis church in March after legislators in Indiana passed that state's version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The bill, which was meant to protect those who object to same-sex marriage, says the state "cannot substantially burden a person's exercise of religion" except when it is has a compelling interest. Even then, the state has to use the least restrictive means to enforce its laws.

Levin decided to challenge the law from the outset, telling U.S. News and World Report in April that he wasn't just going to test the state's new law; he was "going to beat it." He believes the state has no compelling interest in prohibiting marijuana use.

So he filed incorporation papers for the First Church of Cannabis with the secretary of state's office and was granted his license to operate in Indiana. At the time, Levin said he wanted to found a church where everyone was welcome, based on peace, love and weed.

Valerie Kroeger, spokeswoman for the Indiana secretary of state's office, said the state had little choice but to approve the incorporation. "We don't do religious accreditation at the secretary of state's office," she said.

Now, Levin's church has an official Facebook page, and on it he's posted the "New Deity Dozen," a type of Ten Commandments for the marijuana culture. "Treat everyone with love as an equal," "Do not poison [your body] with poor quality foods and sodas," and "When you see a bully ... stop them by any means possible" are all commandments.

Twelfth on the list is, "Cannabis, 'the Healing Plant,' is our sacrament. It brings us closer to ourselves and others. It is our foundation of health, of love, curing us from illness and depression. We embrace it with our whole heart and spirit, individually and as a group."

More than 31,000 people now follow the so-called "church." Other groups calling themselves marijuana churches have also sprung up in Oregon and California, seemingly in the belief that if marijuana use is part of a religious ceremony it is protected. The Supreme Court, however, has ruled it is not.

In Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that when generally applicable state laws prohibit the use and possession of illegal drugs, there is no free exercise claim which can free the religious person from the penalties prescribed by law.

In spite of that ruling, a house church in Rhode Island plans to use marijuana at its service May 23, the Providence Journal has reported.

That service will be conducted at the Roger Williams National Memorial in Providence, a federal monument dedicated to the first proponent of religious liberty in the American colonies and the founder of Providence Plantations – later named Rhode Island. Williams, a one-time Puritan, short-time Baptist and long-time Seeker, could have hardly conceived of the use of marijuana at a church service.

According to the Journal's report, cannabis activist Anne Armstrong and Alan Gordon, a representative of The Healing Church, applied for a permit for a 45-minute long "Celebration of Holy Fire" for 100 people at the monument. That group, like Levin's, seems to be hoping to provoke a legal confrontation.

Gordon told the Journal his group's service will include three types of marijuana substances – a cannabis oil supposedly made from the formula in Exodus 30:23-24, a "fermented milk-and-honey cannabis drink" and smoked or vaporized cannabis.

Should the group use the substances, however, they will likely find themselves in the federal lockup. The site manager of the national monument told the group in a letter accompanying their permit to assemble that the possession or use of a controlled substance is illegal within the National Park System.

The permit "does not grant permission to undertake any activity that may violate applicable federal, state or municipal laws or regulations," Jennifer Smith, who oversees the monument, wrote.

Grant and Gordon, however, both say the service, which will be held on the eve of Pentecost, will be a prayer service for those who see cannabis as a "gift from God and not an item for trade." And both say they will, in fact, light up in spite of the warnings issued by Smith.

Gordon said the issuance of the permit when authorities knew that cannabis would be a part of the service was tantamount to permission to violate the law, or "an implied constitutional loophole."

Grant told the Journal May 5 the completed application included their disclosure of the "use and distribution of KNH BSM," which according to the marijuana activists, is a way of describing Cannabis sativa in Hebrew vowels, "as described in the ancient scriptures."

Presumably, the activists are referring to the words in Exodus 30:23-24 translated as "cassia" and "sweet cane." However, neither of the substances is cannabis. Cassia is the bark of a tree and "sweet cane" is a marsh reed (Acorus Calamis), common to the marshes of the Nile and Palestine.

In Indiana, officials have yet to comment on Levin's new church and county law enforcement officials say they will not arrest those at the service if it doesn't take place on county or city property. Just where the service will take place is still to be determined, but Levin said more than $10,000 has been donated to his cause via a Go Fund Me page.

That page advertises, "Are other religions just not satifing [sic] your need for spirituality? Has your faith left the standard church doctrine? Well, I have an answer. I have created the FIRST CHURCH OF CANNABIS. A church based on LOVE and FAITH with the plant we know and love."

The funds, according to Levin, are being built to break ground on America's first Hemp Temple.

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