Gonzales v. Centro Espirita, 546 U.S. 418; 126 S. Ct. 1211; 163 L. Ed. 2d 1017 (2006)

Gonzales v. Centro Espirita, 546 U.S. 418; 126 S. Ct. 1211; 163 L. Ed. 2d 1017 (2006)

Facts—O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniano do Vegetal (UDV) is a Christian Spiritist sect based in Brazil with about 130 U.S. members. Members take communion by drinking hoasca, a tea from the Amazon Rainforest that contains a hallucinogen regulated under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The U.S. District Court found that this law violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), which required the government to show a compelling interest when burdening religious freedoms and issued a preliminary injunction to prevent Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales from applying it. Both a panel and an en banc sitting of the Tenth Circuit Court agreed.

Question—Does the Religious Freedom Restoration Act prevent enforcement of federal drug laws to prevent the controlled ritualistic use of hoasca tea by Centro Espirita?


ReasonsC.J. Roberts (8–0, Alito not participating). Congress crafted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to respond to the Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith (1990). The law prevented the government from burdening the free exercise of religion, except in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and through use of the least restrictive means. Under the Controlled Substances Act of 2000, hoasca is a Schedule I substance, and its use is classified as criminal. Lower courts found that “the evidence on health risks was ‘in equipoise,’ and similarly that the evidence on diversion was ‘virtually balanced.’” The government argues that this is an insufficient basis on which to issue a preliminary injunction, but the Court disagrees on the basis that the government has “failed to show a likelihood of success under the compelling interest test.”

The government contends that hoasca’s classification as a Schedule I substance subjects it to judicial exemption, but “RFRA, and the strict scrutiny test it adopted, contemplate an inquiry more focused than the Government’s categorical approach.” In cases where the Court applied the compelling interest test, it “looked beyond broadly formulated interests justifying the general applicability of government mandates and scrutinized the asserted harm of granting specific exemptions to particular religious claimants.” Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), involving education, and Sherbert v. Verner (1963), involving unemployment compensation for individuals who lost their jobs for refusing to work on their Sabbath, were illustrative. “Under the more focused inquiry required by RFRA and the compelling interest test, the Government’s mere invocation of the general characteristics of Schedule I substances, as set forth in the Controlled Substances Act, cannot carry the day.” There is no indication that Congress specifically “considered the harms posed by the particular use at issue here—the circumscribed, sacramental use of hoasca by the UDV.” The CSA itself contains a provision authorizing the Attorney General to waive registration of some drug manufacturers consistent with public health and safety, and Congress has made an exemption for the Native American Church to use peyote.

Although the government explains this as a result of its “unique relationship” with the tribes, “Nothing about the unique political status of the Tribes makes their members immune from the health risks the Government asserts.” Nor is there a difference between “a congressional exemption” and “judicially crafted exceptions.” Cutter v. Wilkinson, interpreting the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, further shows “the feasibility of case-by-case consideration of religious exemptions to generally applicable rules.” Although the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances, to which the United States has agreed, appears to cover the drug, “the fact that hoasca is covered by the Convention . . . does not automatically mean that the Government has demonstrated a compelling interest in applying the Controlled Substances Act.” In adopting RFRA, “Congress recognized that “laws ‘neutral’ toward religion may burden religious exercise as surely as laws intended to interfere with religious exercise,’ and legislated ‘the compelling interest test’ as the means for the courts to ‘strike sensible balances between religious liberty and competing prior governmental interests.”

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