he U.S. Supreme Court on February 21 unanimously sided with members of a small New Mexico sect's bid to use hallucinogenic tea in religious rituals.
Chief Justice John Roberts, in his first religious freedom case, said the sect's right to religious expression and practice superseded federal drug control laws that were used to confiscate the tea, known as hoasca.
The court's ruling also served as a strong endorsement of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires the government to show a "compelling interest" before it can limit religious freedom. Roberts said the law gives courts the authority to "strike sensible balances" in weighing government regulation and religious expression.
A wide array of religious groups had watched the case closely because they said it had wide implications for the right of all groups to practice their faith without risk of government interference. The 130-member O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao de Vegetal (UDV), says the tea that is brewed in the faith's Brazilian homeland gives members a "heightened spiritual awareness" that allows them to communicate with God.
The tea contains the drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is banned under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act and a 1971 international treaty that bans its importation. Roberts rejected arguments that the use of hoasca threatened the drug law, and said the "circumscribed, sacramental use" of the drug for religious purposes could be allowed. Both Roberts and the UDV's lawyers noted that peyote--which also contains DMT--has been allowed for years in Native American religious rites.
"If such use is permitted ... for hundreds of thousands of Native Americans practicing their faith, it is difficult to see how those same findings alone can preclude any consideration of a similar exception for the 130 or so American members of the UDV who want to practice theirs," Roberts wrote.
K. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel for the Washington-based Baptist Joint Committee, a religious freedom advocacy group, said the decision "is good news for religious freedom and the continuing vitality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act."
Roberts upheld two lower court decisions that said federal agents were wrong to confiscate the tea in 1999, and sent the case back for "further proceedings" that take his opinion into account.
Authorities Continue Search for Arsonists in Alabama Church Fires
Federal authorities are continuing their plea for two arsonists to contact them so they can work together to stop the string of 10 church fires across west and central Alabama.
As of February 14, commanders had assigned 420 leads for investigators to check out since the first fires were found in Bibb County less than two weeks ago. Some have been helpful; others haven't panned out.
Widespread reports of an arrest Tuesday morning in Choctaw County were false, authorities said. A 21-year-old man was jailed Tuesday on suspicion of setting fire to an abandoned church building in Calhoun County, but the incident isn't connected to the other fires, authorities said.
What authorities want most in their search for the church arsonists is something to clue them in to a motive, said Jim Cavanaugh, regional director for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "We still think, based on witnesses and our collective wisdom, that something is stressing them and causing them to do this," Cavanaugh said. "I do think if you were to ask us what's really causing this, simply put it's `somebody done somebody wrong.' Whenever we get to the bottom of what that is, we'll know who did this."
The spree started Feb. 3. Five Baptist churches were found burned or burning in Bibb County; three of them were destroyed. The second group of fires came Feb. 7, when four more churches were set ablaze in Pickens, Sumter and Greene counties.
The latest fire -- the 10th in less than two weeks -- came Saturday when someone torched Beaverton Free Will Baptist Church in Lamar County. The fire was quickly ruled arson.
That's when investigators put out the word that they wanted to talk to the firebugs -- whom authorities believe are two white men between 20 and their early 30s.
Cavanaugh said it's clear at least one of the arsonists has been emotionally hurt, whether it be family, a romantic relationship or something at work or church. Witnesses have reported seeing two white men in a dark SUV, possibly a Nissan Pathfinder. Cavanaugh said it's important to remember cars are easily changed. The men, he said, are close buddies, likely seen more together than apart.
"If they would call us, we'd listen, we'd be understanding, we'd be tolerant and we'd be willing to understand why this is going on," he said. "We'll treat them with dignity and respect."
Focus on the Family Backs Colo. Measure For Nonmarital Benefits
Focus on the Family, a group known for its opposition to gay marriage, is supporting a proposed Colorado bill that would benefit gay couples and other adults seeking benefits outside a traditional marital relationship.
The bill, introduced by Republican state Sen. Shawn Mitchell, calls for the creation of "reciprocal beneficiary agreements" that would extend specific rights to two unmarried persons such as health care insurance benefits.
Mitchell's bill would also permit them to be involved in medical decisions, joint property ownership and some decisions that would be made at the time of death, such as disposition of remains.
Jim Pfaff, a state policy analyst for the Colorado Springs-based conservative Christian organization, said Focus on the Family supports this bill because it helps a range of individuals and does not give special recognition to gay couples. He cited the example of two elderly women living together and sharing their Social Security benefits.
"This is not a pro-gay bill," he said. "It benefits any two adults who want to undertake this."
Pfaff said his organization also supports an initiative in Colorado that would amend the state constitution to declare that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Paul Cameron, chairman of the Family Research Institute, a separate think tank also based in Colorado Springs, harshly criticized Focus' support of the bill, which he said creates a version of "marriage lite" benefits. "They're stripping out some of the benefits of marriage," said Cameron of the bill. Jay Smith Brown, a spokesman with the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay rights organization, also did not welcome Focus' action.
"This is an extremist group that's built its foundation on attacking our families, so their support is disingenuous and highly suspect," he said, noting that the bill gives a "handful of protections" while denying many others to gay couples.