In 2015 then-governor Mike Pence signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, known as RFRA. In response, Bill Levin founded the First Church of Cannabis, arguing that the bill’s added protections effectively legalize the use of marijuana as a religious sacrament.
The state disagreed, and Levin sued.
Three years later, the case is ongoing. Marion County's circuit court judge heard arguments in a hearing Wednesday, where both sides sought summary judgment, which would end the case before it goes to trial.
Thomas Fisher, representing the state, says the case is about being able to consume an illegal drug, not exercising religious freedom. And he says the group does not meet the criteria of a religion.
Fisher also argued that evidence shows marijuana can function as a gateway drug. And he says if the state creates any legal pathways for marijuana, it will become increasingly difficult for police to enforce the federal and state laws prohibiting its use.
Mark Small, representing Levin, says the church has been meeting weekly for three years, and says marijuana is central to their belief system.
“Their belief, if it’s legitimate, and they believe it and they’re sincere about it, it’s not the government’s position to be able to say ‘No, that’s not a religion,’” Small says.
While Fisher argues that Levin is disingenuously exploiting the law, he also says issues around sincerity and "religiosity" are tricky. But he says the arguments are unnecessary for the state to win the case, because the state has a compelling interest in upholding its laws on controlled substances.
Both sides want to end the case before it goes to trial. Circuit Court Judge Sheryl Lynch says she’ll make that call in about two months.