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EDITORIAL: Religious freedom, the First Church of Cannabis and a slain peacock



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Bill Levin, the leader of the First Church of Cannabis, came home one day in August to find his pet, a 13-year-old peacock named Bert, lying dead under a bush, the Indianapolis Star reported

Bruised and stripped of his plumage, Bert lay lifeless while Levin and his roommate mourned the loss of their friend. 

Levin said he believes a neighbor was responsible for Bert’s death, along with the sudden death of one of his pet goats four months earlier, according to the Star. Levin also said he has been alienated by his neighbors.

The Editorial Board is saddened that people would commit such malicious acts against a neighbor for his religious beliefs – even if they are highly unorthodox. 

Bert’s lifeless body had only two feathers intact, his skin covered with bruises and markings appearing to have come from being beaten on pavement.

Bert was buried in Levin’s front yard. A spokesman from the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department says the investigation is ongoing. Levin told the Star that he hopes the IMPD investigation will uncover more information so he can seek justice for the loss of his pet.

Levin said tensions rose with his neighbors after he founded Indianapolis’ First Church of Cannabis in the summer of 2015. The church leader said starting the marijuana-centered church was his way of testing Indiana’s highly controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Churchgoers, or “Cannaterians” as they are officially called, attend services Wednesday nights. Levin said he has officiated about a half-dozen weddings in affiliation with the church. Overall, he said the past two years for the church have been a success.

"Things have been going absolutely, off-the-hook awesome," Levin told the Star a year ago, saying the church "regenerates everybody's heart and soul, and it makes us feel marvelous again."

Anyone who wishes harm to Levin or his household clearly doesn’t understand religious freedom. However, there is no marijuana smoking during church service under Indiana drug law. 

At its founding, the church sued the state of Indiana, former Gov. Mike Pence and former Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller on grounds that denying Cannaterians’ their right to smoke in public services infringes upon their religious liberty. The case is set to go to trial later this year.

The case, as well as the enduring presence of the church in a state with harsh drug policies, is an unusual interpretation of RFRA, whose beneficiaries are often conservative religious folk protesting homosexuality. 

While members still don’t smoke during services, Levin said the church and its affiliates have still been subject to hate crimes.

"All of a sudden, some of the people in the neighborhood decided they didn't like me because I didn't have a church of Jesus," Levin told the Star. "A couple of the neighbors stopped talking to me."

In an earlier video interview of Levin with his pet animals, Bert was seen strutting across Levin's front lawn, his feathers displayed in a dazzling array.

The Editorial Board believes Bert’s death was an act of violence and should not be justified by difference in religious views or beliefs toward cannabis consumption. 

Difference of opinion should not lead to death or harassment, and the lives of innocent animals should certainly not be in danger.

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