Church of Cannabis

Guardian's 'Church of Cannabis' puff piece makes reader jones for ... context and critique

Guardian's 'Church of Cannabis' puff piece makes reader jones for ... context and critique

I suppose I should thank The Guardian, one of Britain's more-upscale dailies, for giving me the opportunity to post an iconic moment from U.S. television history: A performance of "One Toke Over the Line" from "The Lawrence Welk Show."

Not even Pavarotti singing Meat Loaf's greatest hits could surpass it. Believe me.

The occasion for my diversion into the valley of camp comes from a news story about one of Denver's newest congregations. Get ready for LOTS of puns and clever phrases, even if my longed-for staple, context, is sadly lacking.

Let's visit the scene of the journalistic "crime," entitled "Holy smoke! The church of cannabis" to separate, er, joint from marrow:

It started, naturally, with a group of friends smoking a joint. Steve Berke, a graduate of Yale University, was temporarily living in an old church in Denver, Colorado. His estate agent parents had bought the 113-year-old building with the plan to turn it into flats. He and Lee Molloy, as well as a few friends, had just moved from Miami to capitalise on Colorado’s lucrative marijuana market. But then, in the words of Lee: “We started having these stupid, fantastical conversations. What if we kept it as a church?” So Steve convinced his parents to give him the building and, nine months later, on 20 April 2016 – 4/20, as it’s known in the United States, the unofficial pothead’s holiday (because it’s 4.20pm somewhere, right?) – the International Church of Cannabis opened its doors with its own chapel, theology and video game arcade.
From the outside all appears normal: red-brick towers, blocky turrets, a classic city church in an otherwise leafy suburb of Denver. But there are giveaways. The three front doors and arched window facade have been spray-painted with silver galaxies and bright, happy-face planets. The work of legendary painter and graphic artist Kenny Scharf, who has exhibited in the Whitney and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, it looks more like the backdrop for an illegal 90s rave than your typical parish church. But it’s indicative of the coup that Elevation Ministries, the non-profit company that Steve and Lee co-founded to set up the Church of Cannabis, has managed to pull off.

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Yo, journalists: There are real church-state issues linked to the Church of Cannabis

Yo, journalists: There are real church-state issues linked to the Church of Cannabis

Journalists who took the time to dig into the history of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act -- all the way back into ancient times, as in the Clinton White House -- will have run into references to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court case called Employment Division v. Smith.

That case focused on this question: Did Native Americans -- in this case workers at a private drug rehabilitation group -- have the right to take peyote as part of a religious ritual linked to similar rites in their heritage dating back centuries? The conservative side of the court said "no," while liberals dissented and said the decision denied Native Americans the free exercise of their religious beliefs.

Justice Antonin Scalia famously said that this kind of religious liberty appeal would "open the prospect of constitutionally required exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind."

A nearly unanimous U.S. Congress begged to differ and passed RFRA, backed by a stunningly broad church-state coalition -- basically everyone from Pat Robertson to the American Civil Liberties Union. It was a law inspired by some strange and messy legal cases, but as my graduate-school mentor at Baylor University's Church-State Studies program used to say: Your religious liberty has been purchased for you by people with whom you might not want to have dinner.

In other words, the First Amendment's "free exercise" clause is very powerful and, unless you are dealing with fraud, profit or a clear threat to life and health, courts are not supposed to mess with religious doctrines and practice, even when dealing with messy cases.

If you are following the news right now, you know where I am headed: Bill Levin and his First Church of Cannabis in Indiana.

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