If you thought marijuana, gay rights, and religious tolerance had nothing to do with each other, think again.
As civil libertarians and Christian conservatives battle over recent anti-gay “religious liberty” laws in Indiana and Arkansas, the laws themselves have opened a legal door to an unexpected player: a church devoted to cannabis.
Bill Levin, an Indiana marijuana activist, has launched an effort to build the First Church of Cannabis in Indianapolis. The church, he says, should benefit from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence in late March.
Lawmakers and Pence claimed they enacted the law to protect supposedly persecuted Christian business owners from discrimination lawsuits. Though conservatives in Indiana didn’t explicitly market the law as anti-gay, its principal provisions allow business owners to refuse service to gay couples.
Political backlack in Indiana
The law has led to an impressive political and financial backlash against Indiana, with major corporations pulling massive amounts of money out of local projects in protest. Angie’s List canceled a major expansion in the state, a decision that by itself could cost $40 million in lost economic activity.
Pence has defiantly refused to repeal the law, as have GOP lawmakers in both Indiana and Arkansas, where the legislature was considering a similar bill for that state. Levin says it’s the perfect opportunity to turn the tables.
“I fought this bill tooth and nail,” he said. “And because of our brave and brilliant governor, he opened up the door for me to take my campaign to religion. The state will not interfere with religious belief; well, buddy, my religious belief is green with red hairs, and boy do I like to smoke it.”
Controlled substances not protected under Constitution
It’s not clear how far Pence may get with his campaign. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the past that cannabis and other controlled substances are not protected for religious use under the Constitution. But the Indiana law could unwittingly provide extra legal protections to churches like Levin’s.
Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, an Indianapolis lawyer and political commentator, said Levin could have a solid argument. If he can convince the courts that the law protects his church’s rites, he should have “a pretty good shot at getting off scot-free,” Shabazz said.
Levin formally registered the First Church of Cannabis in March and obtained recognition for the group from state officials. He then started raising money online, with donations topping $4,000 by the end of the month. A Facebook page set up for the church collected more than 13,000 followers in a matter of a few days.
If Levin succeeds, it’s a win-win situation: Either his church secures the right to toke or the law is repealed. But Levin hopes he can pull off both outcomes. He wants to rent a building for his congregation for at least a year, he said, a place where they can gather and smoke their own cannabis in peace.
“I want to have a place where everyone can go,” Levin said. “If people do come to church and feel like celebrating, my church is going to allow smoking because it’s part of our sacrament. Hallelujah, brother: pray, pray, pray.”