Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal

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Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente União do Vegetal
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued November 1, 2005
Decided February 21, 2006
Full case name Alberto R. Gonzales, Attorney General, et al., v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal et al.
Docket nos. 04-1084
Citations 546 U.S. 418 (more)
126 S. Ct. 1211; 163 L. Ed. 2d 1017; 2006 U.S. LEXIS 1815; 74 U.S.L.W. 4119
Prior history Preliminary injunction granted in part to plaintiffs, O Centro Espirita Beneficente União do Vegetal v. Ashcroft, 282 F. Supp. 2d 1236 (D.N.M. 2002); affirmed, 342 F. 3d 1170 (10th Cir. 2003); affirmed en banc, 389 F. 3d 973 (10th Cir. 2004); cert. granted, sub nom. Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente União do Vegetal, 544 U.S. 973 (2005)
A church was properly granted an injunction under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act against criminal prosecution for its sacramental use of a hallucinatory substance, because the federal government had failed to demonstrate a compelling interest in prohibiting that use under the Controlled Substances Act. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed and remanded.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John G. Roberts
Associate Justices
John P. Stevens · Antonin Scalia
Anthony Kennedy · David Souter
Clarence Thomas · Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stephen Breyer · Samuel Alito
Case opinions
Majority Roberts, joined by Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer
Alito took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I; 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb (Religious Freedom Restoration Act)

Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, 546 U.S. 418 (2006), is a case decided by the United States Supreme Court involving the federal government's seizure of a sacramental tea, containing a Schedule I substance, from a New Mexican branch of the Brazilian church União do Vegetal (UDV). The church sued, claiming the seizure was illegal, and sought to ensure future importation of the tea for religious use. The United States District Court for New Mexico agreed and issued a preliminary injunction under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb. The Government appealed to the Appeals Court for the Tenth Circuit which upheld the previous ruling, which was then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments November 1, 2005, and issued its opinion February 21, 2006, finding that the Government failed to meet its burden under RFRA that barring the substance served a compelling government interest. The court also disagreed with the government's central argument that the uniform application of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) does not allow for exceptions for the substance in this case, as Native Americans are given exceptions to use peyote, another Schedule I substance.


In 1999, U. S. Customs agents seized over 30 gallons of hoasca (ayahuasca) tea which was shipped to the Santa Fe, New Mexico branch of the Brazil-based UDV; ayahuasca contains dimethyltryptamine, a Schedule I substance. While no charges were filed, the United States chapter, led by Seagram heir Jeffrey Bronfman, filed suit claiming that the seizure was an illegal violation of the church members' rights; they claimed their usage was permitted under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law passed by Congress in direct response to the Employment Division v. Smith (1990) ruling, in which the Court ruled that unemployment benefits could be denied to two Native Americans fired for using Peyote.

In filing suit, the UDV sought a preliminary injunction preventing the federal government from barring their usage of hoasca; the New Mexico district court ruled in favor of the UDV; on appeal by the government, the Tenth Circuit Appeals Court upheld the previous ruling, which was then appealed to the Supreme Court.

As it worked its way through the appellate courts, the Supreme Court lifted a stay in December 2004 thereby permitting the church to use hoasca for their Christmas services.

Opinion of the Court[edit]

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for a unanimous Court of eight justices. Justice Samuel Alito took no part in the consideration or decision of the case because he was not on the Court when the case was argued. The Court found that the government was unable to detail the government's compelling interest in barring religious usage of Hoasca when applying strict scrutiny as the RFRA demands of such regulations.

Disagreeing with the District Court, the Supreme Court found that Hoasca is covered under the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances, which is implemented by the Controlled Substance Act. However, because the government had failed to submit any evidence on the international consequences of granting an exemption to CSA enforcement by allowing UDV to practice its religion, the Court ruled that it had failed to meet its burden on this point. The Supreme Court ruled that the government failed to demonstrate a compelling interest in applying the Controlled Substances Act to the UDV's sacramental use of the tea.

The ruling upheld a preliminary injunction allowing the church to use the tea pending a lower court trial on a permanent injunction, during which the government will have the opportunity to present further evidence consistent with the Supreme Court's ruling.

Subsequent developments[edit]

The ruling is not binding on states. The Act was amended in 2003 to only include the federal government and its entities, such as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.[1] A number of states have passed their own version of the RFRA, applying the same rule to the laws of their own state, but the Smith case remains the authority in these matters in many states.[2]


  1. ^ Sullivan, Winnifred. 2005. The impossibility of religious freedom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-11801-9.
  2. ^ Canby, William C. Jr. (2004). American Indian Law. P. 344. West Publishing Co. St. Paul. ISBN 0-314-14640-7.

External links[edit]

Court documents[edit]