INDIANAPOLIS — The First Church of Cannabis held its first service Wednesday afternoon, but there was one notable absence: cannabis.
In a move that church leadership and supporters have identified as religious persecution, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Chief Richard Hite declared at a recent press conference that marijuana use at the church would not be tolerated. “Anyone who attends this or any other event and brings marijuana will potentially be subject to arrest or summons and criminal charges,” Hite said.
More than 100 congregants — young and old, and many wearing tie-dyed and leaf-adorned clothing — packed the small church in southern Indianapolis for the inaugural service. Bill Levin, who along with founding the church acts as the Grand Poobah (a title he adopted from the Flintstones) and the Minister of Love, read off the New Deity Dozen, the church’s guiding principles. A round of applause broke out at No. 6. “Never start a fight,” Levin said. “Just finish them.” As the applause died down he sarcastically added, “Well that wasn't meant for anybody.”
Levin founded The First Church of Cannabis in March and received status as a nonprofit, religious institution from the state on March 26. On the same day Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law, which prevents the government from “substantially burdening” a citizen's right to practice their religion unless there is a “compelling governmental interest.” Levin’s church received federal approval the following month, mostly under the radar, while the RFRA garnered international attention for its perceived position as a way for religious businesses to discriminate against the LGBT community.
The church planned its first service for July 1, the day RFRA came into effect. Parishioners originally intended to light up within the church in honor of the last of the New Deity Dozen: “Cannabis, 'the healing plant,' is our sacrament.” If police were to cite or arrest a church member for possession and use of marijuana, it would set off the chain of events where RFRA would be used to protect the possession of marijuana as a part of the religious ritual.
However those plans changed after Police Chief Hite held a press conference alongside County Prosecutor Terry Curry on Friday, June 26, just five days before the church was scheduled to open.
“The RFRA act does not create any sort of immunity from prosecution because it's under the alleged guise of religious practice,” Curry said during the event. “Anyone who's there, whether they use marijuana or not, [is] possibly subject to being charged with visiting a common nuisance if marijuana is openly used within the service.”
Abdul Hakim-Shabazz, a local political reporter and attorney, was quick to note the way this changed the church's legal standing.
“When you have the county prosecutor and the chief of police say, 'We will use the force of government to arrest you and prosecute to the extent of law that we can,' I mean, if you're Bill Levin the threat of that injury, that you cannot open your faith without going to jail, that opens up the door for a civil challenge,” he said.
Hakim-Shabazz has been peripherally involved with the First Church of Cannabis since its inception, having alerted Levin through Facebook to churches in Colorado that used marijuana in their services. He later raised the issue that the church could potentially use the RFRA as a criminal defense.
“And the more and more research I did, I was like, ‘Huh, this is interesting. Under this, Indiana may have just decriminalized pot for religious purposes,’” said Hakim-Shabazz.
The leadership of The First Church of Cannabis plans to file a civil suit for religious persecution. One of the prominent questions will be the legitimacy of the church as a religion — not just on paper but in practice. It's a claim members of the local faith community, and even some state representatives, have questioned.