The Arizona Yagé Assembly’s leaders are suing for the right to use a hallucinogenic tea in their ceremonies. They meet in this maloka. Photo by Scott Stanley/Arizona Yagé Assembly
July 19 (UPI) -- Two Arizona churches are fighting in federal court to establish a right to use a sacramental tea brewed from plants containing a hallucinogenic compound in their religious practice.
The Arizona Yagé Assembly and the Church of the Eagle and the Condor allege in separate lawsuits that their constitutional right to the free exercise of their religion has been violated by federal agencies' seizure of their ayahuasca, an herbal tea that contains a small amount of dimethyltryptamine.
The churches are seeking a declaration that the government's actions stopping them from using ayahuasca violate the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The act bars the government from substantially burdening a person's exercise of religion except in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and only if an action is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.
The Church of the Eagle and the Condor, based in Phoenix, says in its suit that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been seizing and destroying ayahuasca since 2020. The church was founded in 2017 and has 40 active members.
Imbibing ayahuasca is rooted in the spirituality of Indigenous people in South America and "an essential mode of worship" for church members, according to the suit, which was filed in June. However, federal agencies allege any possession of ayahuasca, even for sincere religious purposes, violates the federal Controlled Substances Act, the suit says.
The CSA classifies ayahuasca as a Schedule I controlled substance, which are drugs that have a high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological or physical dependence.
The church insists ayahuasca -- also known as yagé, huasca and daime -- is not addictive and is not known to be used recreationally. Made by boiling the stalks of the banisteriopsis caapi vine and adding psychotria viridis leaves, it has an unpleasant taste and causes many people to experience nausea and vomiting, the suit says.
"The church and its members are aware that their sacrament is proscribed by law, but they have partaken in their sacrament both before and after the United States made a credible threat of enforcement of the CSA against them," the suit says. "Plaintiffs are violating and intend to continue to violate applicable law, rather than compromise or terminate their sincerely held religious beliefs and practices."
The plaintiffs -- the church; Joseph Tafur, a physician who is its spiritual leader; and four members -- claim they were not provided due process before their ayahuasca was confiscated and the Drug Enforcement Agency has refused to respond to Freedom of Information Act filings seeking more specific information about the seizures.
Trying for settlement
The Arizona Yagé Assembly in Tucson and the San Francisco-based North American Association of Visionary Churches filed suit in 2020 alleging their members are "substantially burdened" by laws prohibiting importation, distribution and possession of ayahuasca.
"Because DMT is listed as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act (the 'CSA'), and because the DEA and DHS interpret the law to enact a complete ban against the religious sacrament ayahuasca, members are forced to choose between obedience to their religion and criminal sanction," the suit says.
Arizona Yagé Assembly obtains its sacramental ayahuasca from Peru from trusted sources, according to the suit. Without ayahuasca, congregants are unable to practice their religion, the suit says.
"During ceremonies, many members experience deep religious sentiments directly connected with their own life experience, reviewing incidents from their past, recognizing their errors and those of others, purging their own guilt and forgiving others their wrongs, receiving mercy and forgiveness from the divine source and experiencing the restful peace of divine love," the suit says.
Other plaintiffs who joined the suit were Scott Stanley, director of NAAVC and founder and director of the Arizona Yagé Assembly; the Vine of Light Church in Phoenix; and the late Clay Villanueva, who was the church's founder and minister and an NAAVC board member.
The defendants in each case are Attorney General Merrick Garland and top officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Both suits are pending in U.S. District Court in Phoenix before different judges.
Most of the claims in the Arizona Yagé Assembly case were dismissed in March but the church filed an amended suit. The parties began settlement negotiations in mid-June and were ordered by U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver to submit an update by July 27.
'Honor the spirit'
Stanley said the Ayahuasca Yagé Assembly plans to continue meeting twice a month at its maloka, a ceremonial round house, in the desert west of Tucson. He estimates 5,000 to 6,000 people have attended the religious organization's ceremonies since its founding in 2015.
His first experience with ayahuasca was in 2009, Stanley said.
"The message in my very first ceremony was to 'honor the spirit.' Since that time, I've been making every effort to simply honor the spirit," he said.
The government has not seized all of his church's ayahuasca, but every time the sacrament is confiscated, "it brings us one step closer to not being able to engage in our religious practice," Stanley said. Arizona Yagé Assembly sued to secure its rights only after exhausting all administrative remedies.
"We tried on numerous occasions to petition the DEA, write the DEA, contact the DEA," he said. "We weren't able to."
The suit was filed on May 5, 2020. Two weeks later, Villanueva's home, where he held religious ceremonies, was raided by a drug task force, which seized ayahuasca, marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms, according to court records. The Vine of Light Church closed as a result of the raid.
Villanueva, who was not arrested then, joined the lawsuit. He was taken into custody on Aug. 23, while boarding a plane in Los Angeles to go to Peru for cancer treatment.
His lawyer, Charles Carreon, said a grand jury had indicted Villanueva on drug counts stemming from the raid, but his client was never informed there were charges pending against him or that a warrant had been issued for his arrest. Villanueva, 60, was eventually released from jail pending trial and died April 1.
Debate over sincerity
In a brief opposing Arizona Yagé Assembly's request for an injunction barring the prosecution of the church or its members for importing or ingesting ayahuasca, the federal agencies say the government has a compelling interest in protecting the health and safety of ceremony participants.
Ingesting ayahuasca has been shown to result in hallucinations, agitation, tachycardia, confusion, heightened blood pressure and vomiting and, in rare instances, seizures, respiratory arrest and cardiac arrest, the brief says.
The DEA also has an interest in reducing the incidence of illicit recreational use of ayahuasca, the brief says.
In addition, the agencies say the Arizona Yagé Assembly has not demonstrated the sincerity of its members' religious beliefs.
"AYA's filings contain very few details about basic membership requirements," the brief says. "Without this information, AYA has not demonstrated that 'membership' in AYA actually represents an expression of a sincerely held religious belief in ayahuasca as a sacrament."
Even if sincere, their religious exercise it's not substantially burdened, according to the brief, which points out religious claimants can ask for an exemption from the Controlled Substance Act for religious ayahuasca use.
And, the brief says, the church has been holding ceremonies for years, advertising them for $325 to $775 on its website, which shows members have not been coerced to act contrary to their religious beliefs.
Arizona Yagé Assembly counters the DEA published "Guidance Regarding Petitions for Religious Exemption from the Controlled Substances Act Pursuant to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act" but has never granted an exemption under the guidance.
The group also says its members are sincere.
"Ayahuasca is almost exclusively consumed in religious ceremonies; accordingly, visionary churches whose sacrament is ayahuasca are using a sacrament that in itself affirms their claim of religious sincerity," the suit says.
Committed to religion
Two churches that have been using ayahuasca for years won court rulings saying their activities are legal.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 affirmed the right of O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal in Santa Fe, N.M., to continue using hoasca as a sacrament. The unanimous decision said the government had not shown a compelling interest under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to ban the substance for religious use by União do Vegetal, a Christian Spiritist group based in Brazil.
In Oregon, members of the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen, another Brazil-based religion, have been using ayahuasca, which they call daime, since the 1990s.
Jonathan Goldman, a spiritual leader, said he was introduced to daime in 1987, when he went to Brazil with his therapist. Goldman, who was living in Boston then and working as an acupuncturist, had been in therapy for many years and he said drinking the tea changed his life.
"I got to feel what needed to heal in me and to start to truly heal it inside of me," he said.
After he made a trip to Brazil in 1993 and smuggled daime into the United States in his suitcase, Goldman founded the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen with authorization from the Santo Daime mother church.
Goldman has been leading ceremonies in the small town of Ashland, Ore., where he and his family have lived since 1990. He describes the faith as a "gnostic primitive Catholic religion."
In May 1999, federal agents raided Goldman's house to seize a shipment of daime tea. Goldman said he was threatened by a state prosecutor with arrest and incarceration if he were caught bringing in the tea again or holding ceremonies.
Members then decided to hold ceremonies in secret and to stop keeping records of the church's activities.
After the 2006 ruling in the União do Vegetal suit, church leaders prepared to take their own case to court. They resumed gathering information to show the sincerity of participants, the lineage of the religion, how ceremony participants are taken care of and how the daime is safeguarded.
"We documented everything, everything, everything, everything," Goldman said.
In March 2009, U.S. District Judge Owen Panner in Oregon ruled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act requires that church members be allowed to import and drink daime tea in ceremonies.
Panner noted participants fill out detailed questionnaires about their medical conditions and experienced members act as "guardians" to tend to those suffering from nausea. The fact that ceremonies were conducted in secret shows the sincerity of church members because they remain committed to practicing their religion despite the threat of criminal prosecution, the ruling said.
Goldman said the church's relationship with government agents has been "very peaceful" since the case was resolved.
"They're just people doing their job," he said. "They're really not trying to trip us up."