Religious Freedom…even if it breaks laws?

A few years ago, the Supreme Court dealt a major blow to the separation of government and religion, ruling that members of a Christian sect could use a hallucinogenic tea as part of their religious ritual.

The Santa Fe, New Mexico-based group has about 130 members, and imports a substance known as hoasca which is then combined with local plants and brewed into a tea used in the church’s communion ritual. In 1999, U.S. Customs inspectors seized a shipment of the psychotropic chemical which is banned under the Controlled Substances Act.

The group took legal action citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed by Congress in 1993. RFRA requires that the government present a “compelling interest” before placing substantial burden on any religious practice, and if it does so, it must use the “least restrictive means.” Proponents of the statute claimed that the legislation served to protect religious groups from intrusion by government. But critics say that RFRA spawned a “two-tier” system of justice, and unfairly exempted religious sects from “neutral civil laws” that apply to all other individuals and groups.

There is a precedent for this action.  Southwestern Indians have been allowed to use a drug called Peyote in their religious services.  Other examples: The Amish have been exempted from federal laws requiring children to stay in school until age 16.  The Amish successfully obtained an exemption, claiming that their religion required children to leave school after the 8th grade.

These legal actions highlight a basic conflict in the Constitution.  The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, but the 14th Amendment guarantees “equal protection” under the law.  “Equal protection” means that the laws must treat an individual in the same manner as others in similar conditions and circumstance.

Clearly, if some ill-conceived religion oppresses its members, or engages in illegal activities, this should not be allowed.  But in fact, governments have been extremely reluctant to prosecute religious sects.  In northern Arizona and southern Utah, fundamentalist Mormon sects have been outrageously violating the rights of young women in their communities, forcing them into marriage “contracts” with middle-aged men who already have a dozen wives or more…and the government has done nothing!

Religion seems to offer some a way to break laws with impunity.

So I have decided to form my own new religion.  The basis for it will be worship of the ancient Greek god Dionysus.  The Romans called him Bacchus.  Dionysus always carried a thrysus, a giant fennel staff, covered with vines and leaves, topped with a pine cone. It has been suggested that this was specifically a fertility phallus, with the fennel representing the shaft of the penis and the pine cone representing the “seed” issuing forth.

Dionysus is viewed as the promoter of civilization, a lawgiver, and lover of peace — as well as the patron deity of both agriculture and the theater. He was also known as the Liberator, freeing one from one’s normal self, by madness, ecstasy, or wine.  The divine mission of Dionysus was to bring an end to care and worry.

Since drinking wine will be a sacramental ritual in my religion, I think that my church should be able to buy unlimited quantities of wine tax-free!  Most states exempt wine that is used for religious purposes.  That should get me some really cheap booze, because a large part of the price of a bottle of wine is liquor taxes.

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