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A Higher Power

The First Church of Cannabis will fight in court soon for the religious right to use marijuana



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Bill Levin talks about how the candles represent the seven focus areas as a member of the First Church of Cannabis, Roo Gelarden, lights the candles. The candles represent the following: live, love, laugh, create, grow and teach. Buy Photos

INDIANAPOLIS — A man with wild hair swaggers between the pews of the First Church of Cannabis. Funky music plays as the man, Bill Levin, reaches the front of the room.

“Please, all rise,” says Levin, the founder and Grand Poobah of the church. “Repeat after me.”

He grips a microphone and stands before a projection of a giant cannabis leaf, facing all six congregants.

“I love you!” he shouts.

“I love you!” the crowd shouts back. 

“I love you!” Levin shouts again, and the crowd echoes his words. They go back and forth a few times more, yelling the words Levin calls the most important in the world, the words he has been proselytizing since the church opened in 2015, weeks after Indiana passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

When the shouts are done, Levin lights seven candles representing the church's focus areas for each day of the week — live, love, laugh, learn, create, grow and teach — and calls for member testimonials. 


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Soon, Levin makes church announcements: a thank you to the man who repaired their furnace, a notification some T-shirts are for sale. 

Then, he pauses, looking at his notes.

“We’ve got a church court date on March 6, 7 and 8,” he says. “Hope y’all come down.”

He tells them the event will be fun and educational, an exhibition of justice in action.

“Looking forward to it,” he says and glances up. He raises his eyebrows, opens his eyes wide and scoffs. “Looking forward to it.”

***

In July 2015, Levin and the First Church of Cannabis sued the state of Indiana claiming it was their First Amendment religious right to smoke marijuana as Cannaterians — adherents to the faith the church says it practices. 

The lawsuit came a few months after the state passed RFRA, a piece of legislation that allowed individuals and companies to use their religious beliefs as a defense if sued.

Levin and the state have spent the last two and a half years mired in paperwork and depositions for the case, but a judge is finally scheduled to hear arguments this March.

As of now, Cannaterians don't use marijuana in church, but if they win the case, members 21 and older plan to smoke or vape marijuana at the end of services. Others under 21 will be invited to cookies and tea in the cafe downstairs while older members partake.

To win the case, Levin and his church will have to convince the court that first, their Cannaterian beliefs, particularly that marijuana is a holy sacrament, are genuine religious beliefs. 

This might be a tough task considering the timing of the church’s creation, IU law professor Daniel Conkle said, because it was founded right as RFRA became law. This could make the church seem politically-motivated. 

The state has also argued that Levin’s church can hardly be considered a religion, writing in court documents the church seems "to have cobbled their ‘religion’ together from inspirational quotations ('Live, Laugh, Love'), popular television programs ('The Flintstones' and 'Seinfeld'), military slogans ('Be All You Can Be') and elements of bona fide religions.”

However, Levin said in an interview with the Indiana Daily Student that he did not create the church for political reasons, but because he had long felt like he should create a faith that actually reflects his own beliefs. He had been an ordained minister since 2010, and he said the timing of the church’s creation was not to prove a political point.

Even if the church does manage to prove the authenticity of their religious beliefs, including that marijuana is a sacrament, it still might not be enough. Conkle said United States law still allows the government to not make legal exceptions for people’s religious practices if the government has an overriding compelling interest in keeping something illegal. 

Because marijuana is illegal in all forms in Indiana, Conkle said the state can pretty easily argue it has a compelling reason to not make a religious exemption. In court documents, the state argues, among other things, making an exemption for the church would make it difficult for law enforcement to do their jobs. 

How would they know if someone was using marijuana for legal religious purposes or illegal recreational reasons? 

Levin, though, said he is optimistic about the case. In fact, he is certain he will win. 

“I religiously believe cannabis is a sacrament that will save the world,” Levin said. “I think we’re going to hit — I think we’re going to land on all fours.”

After the hearing, the judge will have a few weeks to decide the case.

Levin is hoping the court will issue a decision in the church’s favor on April 19, just in time for 4/20. 

***

Partway through the service, Levin asks congregants to recite with him the Deity Dozen, or the Cannaterian equivalent of the Ten Commandments. 

Cannaterian doctrine does not assert nor deny the existence of a God or higher power, and the Deity Dozen instead mostly describe general guidelines for living one's life. 

Many are related to kindness or happiness such as, “The day starts with your smile every morning. When you get up, wear it first,” or, “Laugh often, share humor. Have fun in life, be positive.”

Some guidelines echo the sentiments of other religions, such as, “Do not take advantage of people. Do not intentionally hurt anything,” and, “Treat your body as a temple. Do not poison it with poor quality foods and sodas.”

Other guidelines, though, are singularly Cannaterian, such as, “Do not be a ‘troll’ on the internet, respect others without name calling and being vulgarly aggressive,” or the 12th and final guideline outlining the role of marijuana in their faith:

"Cannabis, 'the Healing Plant', is our sacrament. It brings us closer to ourselves and others. It is our fountain of health, our love, curing us from illness and depression. We embrace it with our whole heart and spirit, individually and as a group."

But, it is the first of the dozen guidelines that trips up one congregant, Mallerie Kraemer. She is 14 years old and comes to church with her mother, who is Levin’s roommate. 

“Don’t be an asshole,” Levin says, reciting the first guideline. “Treat everyone with love as an equal.”

Kraemer starts to repeat back the guideline and then starts laughing.

“You told me I could say it,” she says. 

Her mother chuckles, and Levin begins to laugh, too. This is one of the things Levin most likes about his church — humor is not just appreciated, it is built into the worship. 

“You can say it,” he tells Kraemer. “You’re in church.”

***

The First Church of Cannabis is registered as a nonprofit organization, and it survives mainly on donations and sales from a gift shop.

The shop sells T-shirts and other items promoting the church, but it also has a massive stock of toys and collectibles, such as X-Men action figures and a Polly Pocket board game, left over from Levin’s career as the owner of a toy and novelty store.

Still, Levin said the church is barely keeping its head above water between the operational costs of the building and the legal fees. He doesn't expect these fees to end anytime soon, either, whether the judge rules in his favor or not this spring.

If he and the Cannaterians lose, he said the church will appeal. If the state loses, it will likely appeal. Either way, the case is probably far from being over.

A handful of similar cases have made their way through the court system in the last few decades, but none were quite like this one.

Cases involving the use other illegal drugs, not marijuana, with no question of religious authenticity have had mixed results. 

In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a worker fired for using illegal drugs for religious purposes could still be denied unemployment benefits. This case arose from two Native Americans fired from their jobs for ingesting peyote, an illegal hallucinogen, as part of services in the Native American Church. 

But, in a 2006 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of members of a Brazil-based church who sought to import a tea, called ayahuasca, containing an illegal hallucinogenic substance for use during services.

Rastafarians have also wound up in court, specifically over marijuana use, but Conkle said because marijuana is commonly used for nonreligious recreational purposes, courts are more reluctant to make an exception for religious uses. 

“I’d be surprised if the Church of Cannabis wins,” Conkle said “But obviously, it’s not gone yet.”

***

The service winds down, and Levin pulls out a small wooden box — the sacrament box.

If the church were granted the right to use marijuana, Levin says the church would provide marijuana from this box during services to people 21 and over, though no one would be obligated to partake. 

For now, though, the box instead contains other items that change every week, and today, it is a kazoo and a Farrah Fawcett trading card. 

Then, Levin closes the service with their final recitation.

“One toke, one smile, one love — amen,” he says. 

Music begins to play again, and Levin is making his way back down the aisle, hugging everyone in sight and saying, “I love you.”

He walks out the door and passes a mural somewhat copying “The Creation of Adam” except it is zoomed in on just two hands, one reaching out to the other to pass a joint.

He continues through the lobby, decorated with a sign saying "MARIJUANA Safer than Alcohol" and a copy of the Deity Dozen superimposed over a photo of his own face.

Levin keeps walking, headed toward the back of the church, until finally, he settles in his office and lights up a cigar.

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