Peyote Exemption for Native American Church

Headnotes: 

Regulation of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) exempting peyote use in connection with the religious ceremonies of the Native American Church (NAC) from the controls and sanctions of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA), accurately reflects Congress’ intent to exempt the religious use of peyote by the NAC and other bona fide religions in which the use of peyote is central to established religious beliefs, practices, dogmas, or rituals.

An exemption for peyote use by the NAC would not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment if the NAC had a constitutional right under the Free Exercise Clause to use peyote for religious purposes.

The NAC is an established religion, in whose history the sacramental use of peyote is firmly grounded, and in whose doctrine and ritual the use of peyote is central. Nonetheless, it is likely that Congress could, consistently with the Free Exercise Clause, constitutionally restrict or prohibit the continued religious use of peyote if this were the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling governmental purpose.

The exemption for the religious use of peyote contained in the CSA does not offend the Establishment Clause even if it is not required by the Free Exercise Clause. Under relevant Supreme Court precedent, the government may take actions necessary to avoid substantial interference with religious practices or beliefs, even if such actions are not required by the Free Exercise Clause, provided that the actions do not impose hardship on others or amount to government sponsorship or support of religion.

A statutory exemption limited to the NAC, to the exclusion of other religions whose use of peyote is central to established religious beliefs or practices, would be unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause if it discriminated among otherwise equally situated religions. No different conclusion would be required because the “preferred” religion is composed of American Indians, since the special treatment of Indians under our law is grounded in their unique status as political entities, not in their religion or culture. On the other hand, since no group other than the NAC is likely to be able to establish its entitlement to the exemption, the DEA would be justified in adopting procedures designed to minimize the administrative burdens of extending the exemption to other groups.

Updated July 9, 2014