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Rastafari church drug bust reignites debate on legitimacy of Lion of Judah Church

MADISON (WKOW) — The founders of the Lion of Judah Rastafari Church spent much of Wednesday in jail after police raided their building on W. Mifflin St. The church gives marijuana as a sacrament in exchange for suggested donations.

Jesse Schworck, 39, was arrested on tentative charges including delivery of marijuana and maintaining a drug dwelling.

Dylan P. Bangert, 23, faces charges of maintaining a drug dwelling and being party to the crime of delivery of marijuana.

Besides attracting police attention, the church has caused controversy in the neighborhood since it opened in March.

Dana Pellebon said it came to her attention after she saw what she considered homophobic and transphobic posts on the church’s Facebook page. Then she said she confronted the owners about these posts and their decision to open a Rastafari Church, which has its roots in Jamaican and Ethiopian culture, without any connection to that culture.

“Black men are five times more likely in the state of Wisconsin to be arrested and convicted of marijuana offenses and these two white men were appropriating black religion ‘to not sell weed,’ except for they were,” Pellebon said.

She helped stage a protest outside the church earlier this month asking for police to treat the facility the way they would treat anyone who was selling marijuana that brazenly. Pellebon said she believes in the right for people to follow the Rastafari religion but that’s not what she sees happening at Lion of Judah.

Members of the church said there’s a lot more to the church than marijuana. Gerald Sersch volunteers at the church and he said one of the founders helped him give up alcohol through the Rastafari religion.

“It’s genuinely a church,” he said. “We have lots of literature you can come in and catch up on. They have books that explain our religion. I mean, Dylan helped me take a Nazarite vow. We went through and read verses of the Bible.”

Earlier this month, the Lion of Judah Church filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Madison claiming police confiscating their cannabis violated their rights under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

This isn’t the first church to try to use cannabis as a sacrament. In December of 2018, the Indiana Appeals Court struck down a case in which the “First Church of Cannabis” tried to use the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act to justify its marijuana use.

That church did not claim to be a part of the Rastafari religion.

Michelle Alfini

Reporter, WKOW

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