The Limits of Religious Freedom

A heroin dealer’s claim that his charges for distributing heroin to consenting adults violated his religious freedom was denied by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals week before last. The defendant was sentenced to 27 years in federal court in St. Louis, Missouri.

Before his trial in St. Louis in 2015, Anderson demanded that the case against him be thrown out, noting that the religious freedom act states that “the government may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it is in the furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling interest.” Anderson wrote that he was running a “faith-based system” that offered detoxification treatment by the distribution and controlled use of heroin to “consenting adults only” as a “method of bringing the individual to a drug-free state.” He stated that he did not “formally ascribe to any organized religion” and that his “religion beliefs derive from his transcendental union with the divine,” court records show.

The trial judge refused to even hold a hearing on the defendant’s motion, finding that the government “has a proper and compelling interest in the regulation of heroin,” and that prohibition of heroin was the “least restrictive means” of achieving that interest. The Eighth Circuit agreed.

The United States Supreme Court has held that accommodations must be made for religious groups who use certain illegal drugs as part of their sacraments. A Brazilian religious group based in New Mexico is permitted to import ayahuasca, and Native American groups are permitted to use peyote, both of which are Schedule I hallucinogens.  Despite this, the defendant in this case never claimed that the people he distributed heroin to were using it for religious purposes, and part of his argument stated that he did not “formally ascribe to any organized religion” and that his “religion beliefs derive from his transcendental union with the divine.”

It seems that we may have found the limits of drug use for religious purposes, and there will be no religious exemption for the distribution of heroin.

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