Preserving Religious Freedom & Employee Rights in California’s Psychedelics Legalization Debate

With the recent resurgence of interest in psychedelics, we find ourselves at a pivotal intersection of law, religion, and employee rights, particularly in California. As state regulators, corporate lawyers, and pharmaceutical researchers spearhead a new era of legal frameworks around these substances, their long and complex history as religious sacraments cannot be overlooked.

In this tug-of-war between First Amendment freedoms and federal drug policy, Ariel Clark, an attorney specializing in Native American, cannabis, and psychedelics law at Clark Howell LLP, fears the repetition of past mistakes. “Existing religious and ceremonial communities, underground therapists, and others who are already accessing and relating to psychedelics cannot get squeezed out,” she warns.

Understanding Religious Exemptions in Federal Drug Policy

Historically, key court rulings have paved the way for religious exemptions in federal drug policy. A landmark case in 1990, Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, ruled that a state could deny unemployment benefits to Native American Church members who used peyote, a cactus producing a Schedule I psychedelic substance. This verdict stirred Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), to prevent government policies from hindering religious practices.

In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled in Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal that the Controlled Substances Act must respect RFRA. However, these cases did not give a universal go-ahead for churches to use controlled substances in their rites. Instead, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) set forth certain criteria for religious exemptions.

Attorneys like Alison Hoots, an advocate for the religious and spiritual use of psychedelics, highlight the substantial burdens and potential liabilities associated with this process.

Case Study: Soul Quest’s Fight for Religious Freedom

Soul Quest Ayahuasca Church of Mother Earth’s ongoing battle with the DEA at the 11th Circuit exemplifies these challenges. After three years of petitioning, Soul Quest sued the DEA for asserting jurisdiction over religious practices and allegedly violating the First Amendment’s freedom to exercise religion. Despite the lawsuit, Soul Quest’s petition was denied, and the case was dismissed.

This controversial case raises pertinent questions about the DEA’s authority and process in assessing religious sincerity. As Hoots articulates, “Can religion be something that doesn’t have dogma? These are all things that I don’t think the government is prepared to answer.”

The Fight to Preserve Peyote’s Unique Status

Steven Moore, an attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, highlights the threat to the unique legal status of peyote, a controlled substance exempted for Native American Church members. The Western resurgence in traditional plant medicines and decriminalization movements has led to increased trespassing and poaching in regions where peyote is cultivated.

Moore argues for a balance that respects the rights of the Indigenous community and addresses the fragility of peyote’s habitat.

The Road Ahead

This debate has profound implications for Californians and beyond. Bills introduced this session in California and New York, alongside other efforts to decriminalize natural psychedelics, make the same peyote exemption. However, the need for preserving religious rights while ensuring safe, equitable access to these substances remains a critical challenge.

The evolving landscape of psychedelics legalization is an ethical inflection point in the Western ecosystem, impacting employee rights, religious freedom, and Indigenous rights. It’s a conversation we must have carefully and thoughtfully.