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An American Indian church is suing state and federal police and prosecutors over the right of its members to use peyote in religious ceremonies, even if they aren't of Indian ancestry.
The lawsuit was filed Monday in Utah's U.S. District Court on behalf of the Oklevueha Native American Church. It contends that federal laws that protect peyote use by American Indians should apply to anyone who belongs to the church.
The lawsuit seeks to block state and federal law enforcement from arresting or bringing criminal charges against church members who "fear reprisal from both state and federal governments for openly practicing their religion," court papers state.
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency and the Utah attorney general's office. Messages left with the federal agencies were not all immediately returned on Thursday, although an FBI spokesman in Salt Lake City said he could not comment on pending litigation.
Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah attorney general said the office could not comment until after it had seen the lawsuit.
A plant with hallucinogenic properties, peyote is considered a sacred medicine by Indians. Court papers say it has been used by indigenous populations for thousands of years. Although considered a controlled substance, federal law allows for the use of peyote by Indians for religious reasons.
The Oklevueha church is a federally recognized American Indian church with roots in the Native American Church founded in 1918. Court documents say the faith has practicing members on many reservations and across 29 states, Canada, Mexico and Peru.
The lawsuit was filed in Utah because since 1999, church members here say they have been harassed, arrested and prosecuted for using peyote, court papers say.
Those cases include the 2000 prosecution of medicine man James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney on multiple felony charges, including drug possession and distribution for giving peyote to church members and others during religious ceremonies.
Mooney's conviction was thrown out by the Utah Supreme Court on appeal. The ruling from justices said an exemption in federal law that allows for peyote use should include all church members regardless of the aribitrary "blood quantum" standard the primary basis for determining who is a protected American Indian religious practitioner, the lawsuit states.
"It is time that such a basis be abolished in favor of extending full religious freedom and protection to the NAC as a broader based, American religious choice," attorneys for the Oklevueha wrote in court papers.
Lawyers argue in court papers that interest in American Indian religious practices has spread far beyond the boundaries of those with tribal ancestry. They also contend that proving the "blood quantum" standard is increasingly difficult as "American Indians continue integrating with the broader American population."
Denying the exemption prohibits church members from practicing their religion, court papers say.