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Law Expert: House of Rastafari may not be protected by First Amendment

MADISON (WKOW) — Members of a Rastafari church in Madison are standing by their assertion that their use of marijuana is protected by the First Amendment.

Police raided the Lion of Judah House of Rastafari on East Mifflin Street, Wednesday.

The church accepts donations from members in exchange for marijuana, claiming the drug is sacrament.

But can they do that?

“It’s a classic exam problem in introductory law classes,” Howard Schweber, a former attorney and political science professor at UW Madison, said.

He said his students asked him about the issue when the church opened in March.

“The question has to do with, when is the government required to make an accommodation for a religious practice,” Schweber said.

He says, for a long time the state would have to meet a very high bar to not give the church the exemption.

That changed in 1990.

“Under the U.S. Constitution, states have no obligation to grant accommodations at all,” he said. “They can do so if they want, but they don’t have to.”

Historically, Schweber said Wisconsin courts have been on the side of religious organizations, when it comes to issues like employment discrimination.

However, he said state courts haven’t taken up an issue like this yet.

“The question here is: will the Wisconsin State Courts find that the state’s interest in preventing the use of marijuana is stronger, more compelling, than the state’s interest in preventing discrimination,” Schweber said. “The answer very well may be yes.”

He says the religious aspect of the marijuana use might not be questioned by the courts.

He believes the court’s argument could be that allowing them to continue using it could cause a risk to the community as a whole

While he says this could go to the State Supreme Court, he only sees one way this could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“If the State Supreme Court were to say ‘We don’t believe this is a sincere religious belief,’ that might open up an avenue for a First Amendment challenge under the U.S. Constitution,” Schweber said.

Schweber says that with the conservative makeup of the State Supreme Court, he doubts those justices will challenge the religious aspect.

He believes as long as state laws prevent the use of marijuana, the court wont make an exemption for the church.

Francisco Almenara

Reporter, WKOW

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