Frequently we discuss the troubles that mainstream media have with covering traditional religious thought. But religious outliers, while gathering senationalist news coverage, also suffer from poor media coverage. That's why I was glad to see Arizona Daily Star reporter Stephanie Innes' look at the Church of Cognizance, a group that advocates the use of marijuana. Reader Charlie Lehardy sent the story along. It would be easy to fill such a news piece with Cheech and Chong references or, on the other hand, take an approach that ignores the weirdness of such a group. Innes strikes a good balance:
The Church of Cognizance, which has quietly operated here since 1991, has an unusual tenet -- its worshippers deify and use marijuana as part of their faith.
Until federal authorities charged them with possessing 172 pounds of their leafy green sacrament earlier this year, church founders Dan and Mary Quaintance say they smoked, ate or drank marijuana daily as a way of becoming more spiritually enlightened.
But now, with added conspiracy charges, the Quaintances face up to 40 years each in prison in a case they call religious persecution.
The piece looks at the argument of federal prosecutors who say that religious freedom does not permit the use of illegal drugs. She also looks at the Quaintances' belief that a recent Supreme Court decision allowing a religious group to use a banned hallucinogenic tea protects them. In that case, she notes, groups such as the Arizona Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Union for Reform Judaism filed briefs in support of the religious group. Innes looks at the crux of the debate:
"Marijuana is the averter of death," [Dan Quaintance] said. "The energy and spirit that is in marijuana is God. You consume the plant and you consume God. You are sacrificing your body to the deity." . . .
"Religion is basically putting your faith in what you rely on," he said. "Jesus started his church because of what he believed and learned."
He filed a "declaration of religious sentiment" on behalf of the Church of Cognizance with the Graham County Recorder's Office in 1994, though Dan, his family and other members say the church dates to 1991. . . .
Still, Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Virginia-based First Amendment Center, says any group seeking an exemption to the nation's drug laws, even for religious purposes, has a "hill to climb."
One never knows how these cases will turn out. But, should a case like this proceed through the court system, it would have ramifications on other religious groups. That's why such disparate groups worked to help out the O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal (or UDV), which advocated drinking hallucinogenic tea.
Innes' piece is full of direct quotes from knowledgeable or interested parties. With complex religion stories, it's better to quote the players themselves than to convey their views inaccurately. I also like how she took the time to explain more about how the courts determine religious sincerity:
The U.S. Constitution contains no legally recognizable definition of religion, but courts still can apply a test of sincerity, said Jeremy Gunn, director of the Freedom of Religion and Belief program for the American Civil Liberties Union, which supported the UDV church.
If, for example, a group of prisoners calling themselves the Church of Cabernet and Filet Mignon argued religious belief as a reason to be served wine and better food, the government would have a right to question the sincerity of their theological belief, he said.
Photo via Viceroy321 on Flickr.