Cannabis churches have been cropping up around California and other states in recent years. These “churches” assert that cannabis is used as a sacrament, much like wine in many Christian denominations. While cannabis is legal state-wide, the state leaves the particulars to each municipality. In cities and counties that continue to prohibit cannabis distributors from setting up shop, some cannabis operators are now looking to establish cannabis churches and rely on religious freedom protections to dole out cannabis products to their parishioners. Continue reading to learn about religious freedom laws and how they can help cannabis churches. Call a dedicated California cannabis business lawyer for assistance with cannabis business law issues or cannabis litigation.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) is a federal law that prohibits any agency, department, or official of the United States, as well as any State government, from substantially burdening the free exercise of a person’s religion. The prohibition extends even if the religious conduct would be barred by a rule of general applicability–such as a law prohibiting underage drinking. Because the sacrament is important to the free exercise of many churches’ religious practices, preventing minors under age 21 from drinking sacramental wine would be considered a substantial burden on their religious freedom.
The government may burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it satisfies two conditions: (1) the burden satisfies a compelling governmental interest; and (2) the burden imposed is the least restrictive means to further that compelling governmental interest. Stated differently, the government must have a strong interest in prohibiting the targeted conduct, and the rules restricting that conduct must be narrowly tailored to the governmental interest being served. For example, the government can prohibit human sacrifice because protecting human life is a compelling governmental interest, and laws prohibiting murder in all its forms are tailored to the government’s compelling interest in preserving human life.
How Might RFRA Help Cannabis Churches?
RFRA applies to all faiths. The protection extends to all religious practices, whether or not they are central to or required by the religion. Religious protections extend to all persons and organizations. Moreover, courts are expected to defer to individuals’ assertions about their sincerely held religious beliefs. If an individual or organization claims that marijuana sacraments serve their religion, the government must provide a compelling argument for why their religious practice should be burdened.
Cannabis churches may adhere to a variety of faiths. They may incorporate Christianity as well as lesser-known spiritual practices. Regardless of the nature of their faith, if they contend that cannabis sacraments are a part of their religious practice, then a prohibition on their ability to distribute cannabis to their parishioners would be a substantial burden on that practice. The local government should not be able to tamp down on cannabis distribution at their place of worship without substantial justification.
RFRA protection in the case of cannabis churches is not a sure thing. An Indiana court, for example, held that RFRA does not protect marijuana sacraments. Marijuana remains illegal in Indiana, and the state held that the government’s “compelling interest” in fighting drug distribution would be severely hampered if they were to carve out a religious exemption. In California, given that marijuana is legal statewide, it is harder to see a local municipality’s compelling interest in preventing the distribution of an otherwise legal substance.
Get Seasoned Advice and Experienced Representation from a California Cannabis Business Lawyer
If you are interested in setting up a cannabis business or are dealing with regulatory, tax, licensing, or other legal issues with your hemp, CBD, or cannabis business in Los Angeles or Southern California, call McReynolds Vardanyan, LLP, in Glendale at 818-855-2115. Our California cannabis business lawyers will work with you to get your budding business off the ground efficiently, effectively, and legally.