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Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal (No. 04

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  • Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal (No. 04

    The following 2 decisions were released today:
    1. Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal
    2. Buckeye Check Cashing, Inc. v. Cardegna

    Due to technical difficulties, today's links will be to the Supreme
    Court's PDF slip opinions.

    ================================================== =============
    Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal (No. 04–
    Web-accessible at:

    Argued November 1, 2005—Decided February 21, 2006
    Opinion author: Roberts
    ================================================== =============


    No. 04–1084. Argued November 1, 2005—Decided February 21, 2006

    Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA)
    in response to Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v.
    Smith, 494 U. S. 872, where, in upholding a generally applicable law
    that burdened the sacramental use of peyote, this Court held that the
    First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause does not require judges to
    engage in a case-by-case assessment of the religious burdens imposed by
    facially constitutional laws, id., at 883–890. Among other things, RFRA
    prohibits the Federal Government from substantially burdening a
    person's exercise of religion, "even if the burden results from a rule
    of general applicability," 42 U. S. C. §2000bb–1(a), except when the
    Government can "demonstrat[e] that application of the burden to the
    person (1) [furthers] a compelling government interest; and (2) is the
    least restrictive means of furthering that . . . interest," §2000bb–

    Members of respondent church (UDV) receive communion by drinking
    hoasca, a tea brewed from plants unique to the Amazon Rainforest that
    contains DMT, a hallucinogen regulated under Schedule I of the
    Controlled Substances Act, see 21 U. S. C. §812(c), Schedule I(c).
    After U. S. Customs inspectors seized a hoasca shipment to the American
    UDV and threatened prosecution, the UDV filed this suit for declaratory
    and injunctive relief, alleging, inter alia, that applying the
    Controlled Substances Act to the UDV's sacramental hoasca use violates
    RFRA. At a hearing on the UDV's preliminary injunction motion, the
    Government conceded that the challenged application would substantially
    burden a sincere exercise of religion, but argued that this burden did
    not violate RFRA because applying the Controlled Substances Act was the
    least restrictive means of advancing three compelling governmental
    interests: protecting UDV members' health and safety, preventing the
    diversion of hoasca from the church to recreational users, and
    complying with the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic
    Substances. The District Court granted relief, concluding that, because
    the parties' evidence on health risks and diversion was equally
    balanced, the Government had failed to demonstrate a compelling
    interest justifying the substantial burden on the UDV. The court also
    held that the 1971 Convention does not apply to hoasca. The Tenth
    Circuit affirmed.

    Held: The courts below did not err in determining that the Government
    failed to demonstrate, at the preliminary injunction stage, a compel
    ling interest in barring the UDV's sacramental use of hoasca. Pp. 6–

    1. This Court rejects the Government's argument that evidentiary
    equipoise as to potential harm and diversion is an insufficient basis
    for a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the Controlled
    Substances Act. Given that the Government conceded the UDV's prima
    facie RFRA case in the District Court and that the evidence found to be
    in equipoise related to an affirmative defense as to which the
    Government bore the burden of proof, the UDV effectively demonstrated a
    likelihood of success on the merits. The Government's argument that,
    although it would bear the burden of demonstrating a compelling
    interest at trial on the merits, the UDV should have borne the burden
    of disproving such interests at the preliminary injunction hearing is
    foreclosed by Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union, 542 U. S.
    656, 666. There, in affirming the grant of a preliminary injunction
    against the Government, this Court reasoned that the burdens with
    respect to the compelling interest test at the preliminary injunction
    stage track the burdens at trial. The Government's attempt to limit the
    Ashcroft rule to content-based restrictions on speech is unavailing.
    The fact that Ashcroft involved such a restriction in no way affected
    the Court's assessment of the consequences of having the burden at
    trial for preliminary injunction purposes. Congress' express decision
    to legislate the compelling interest test indicates that RFRA
    challenges should be adjudicated in the same way as the test's
    constitutionally mandated applications, including at the preliminary
    injunction stage. Pp. 6–8.

    2. Also rejected is the Government's central submission that, because
    it has a compelling interest in the uniform application of the
    Controlled Substances Act, no exception to the DMT ban can be made to
    accommodate the UDV. The Government argues, inter alia, that the Act's
    description of Schedule I substances as having "a high potential for
    abuse," "no currently accepted medical use," and "a lack of
    accepted safety for use . . . under medical supervision," 21 U. S. C.
    §812(b)(1), by itself precludes any consideration of individualized ex-
    ceptions, and that the Act's "closed" regulatory system, which prohib-
    its all use of controlled substances except as the Act itself
    authorizes, see Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U. S. ___, ___, cannot function
    properly if subjected to judicial exemptions. Pp. 8–16.

    (a) RFRA and its strict scrutiny test contemplate an inquiry more
    focused than the Government's categorical approach. RFRA requires the
    Government to demonstrate that the compelling interest test is
    satisfied through application of the challenged law "to the per-son"—
    the particular claimant whose sincere exercise of religion is being
    substantially burdened. 42 U. S. C. §2000bb–1(b). Section 2000bb(b)(1)
    expressly adopted the compelling interest test of Sherbert v. Verner,
    374 U. S. 398, and Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U. S. 205. There, the Court
    looked beyond broadly formulated interests justifying the general
    applicability of government mandates, scrutinized the asserted harms,
    and granted specific exemptions to particular religious claimants. Id.,
    at 213, 221, 236; Sherbert, supra, at 410. Outside the Free Exercise
    area as well, the Court has noted that "[c]ontext matters" in applying
    the compelling interest test, Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U. S. 306, 327,
    and has emphasized that strict scrutiny's fundamental purpose is to
    take "relevant differences" into account, Adarand Constructors, Inc. v.
    Peña, 515 U. S. 200, 228. Pp. 9–10.

    (b) Under RFRA's more focused inquiry, the Government's mere invocation
    of the general characteristics of Schedule I substances cannot carry
    the day. Although Schedule I substances such as DMT are exceptionally
    dangerous, see, e.g., Touby v. United States, 500
    U. S. 160, 162, there is no indication that Congress, in
    classifyingDMT, considered the harms posed by the particular use at
    issue. That question was litigated below. Before the District Court
    found that the Government had not carried its burden of showing a
    compelling interest in preventing such harm, the court noted that it
    could not ignore the congressional classification and findings. But
    Congress' determination that DMT should be listed under Schedule I
    simply does not provide a categorical answer that relieves the Gov-
    ernment of the obligation to shoulder its RFRA burden. The Controlled
    Substances Act's authorization to the Attorney General to "waive the
    requirement for registration of certain manufacturers, distributors, or
    dispensers if he finds it consistent with the public health and
    safety," 21 U. S. C. §822(d), reinforces that Congress' findings with
    respect to Schedule I substances should not carry the determinative
    weight, for RFRA purposes, that the Government would ascribe to them.
    Indeed, despite the fact that everything the Government says about the
    DMT in hoasca applies in equal measure to the
    mescaline in peyote, another Schedule I substance, both the Executive
    and Congress have decreed an exception from the Controlled Substances
    Act for Native American religious use of peyote, see 21 CFR §1307.31;
    42 U. S. C. §1996a(b)(1). If such use is permitted in the face of the
    general congressional findings for hundreds of thousands of Native
    Americans practicing their faith, those same findings alone cannot
    preclude consideration of a similar exception for the 130 or so
    American members of the UDV who want to practice theirs. See Church of
    Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U. S. 520, 547. The
    Government's argument that the existence of a congressional exemption
    for peyote does not indicate that the Controlled Substances Act is
    amenable to judicially crafted exceptions fails because RFRA
    plainlycontemplates court-recognized exceptions, see §2000bb–1(c). Pp.

    (c) The peyote exception also fatally undermines the Govern-ment's
    broader contention that the Controlled Substances Act establishes a
    closed regulatory system that admits of no exceptions under RFRA. The
    peyote exception has been in place since the Controlled Substances
    Act's outset, and there is no evidence that it has undercut the
    Government's ability to enforce the ban on peyote use by non-Indians.
    The Government's reliance on pre-Smith cases asserting a need for
    uniformity in rejecting claims for religious exemptions under the Free
    Exercise Clause is unavailing. Those cases did not embrace the notion
    that a general interest in uniformity justified a substantial burden on
    religious exercise, but instead scrutinized the asserted need and
    explained why the denied exemptions could not be accommodated. See,
    e.g., United States v. Lee, 455 U. S. 252, 258, 260. They show that the
    Government can demonstrate a compelling interest in uniform application
    of a particular program by offering evidence that granting the
    requested religious accommodations would seriously compromise its
    ability to administer the program. Here the Government's uniformity
    argument rests not so much on the particular statutory program at issue
    as on slippery slope concerns that could be invoked in response to any
    RFRA claim for an exception to a generally applicable law, i.e., "if I
    make an exception for you, I'll have to make one for everybody, so no
    exceptions." But RFRA operates by mandating consideration, under the
    compelling interest test, of exceptions to "rule[s] of general
    applicability." §2000bb–1(a). Congress' determination that the
    legislated test is "workable . . . for striking sensible balances
    between religious liberty and competing prior governmental interests,"
    §200bb(a)(5), finds support in Sherbert, supra, at 407, and Cutter v.
    Wilkinson, 544 U. S. ___, ___. While there may be instances where a
    need for uniformity precludes the recognition of exceptions to
    generally applicable laws under RFRA, it would be surprising to find
    that this was such a case, given the longstanding peyote exemption and
    the fact that the very reason Congress enacted RFRA was to respond to a
    decision denying a claimed right to sacramental use of a controlled
    substance. The Government has not shown that granting the UDV an
    exemption would cause the kind of administrative harm recognized as a
    compelling interest in, e.g., Lee. It cannot now compensate for its
    failure to convince the District Court as to its health or diversion
    concerns with the bold argument that there can be no RFRA exceptions at
    all to the Controlled Substances Act. Pp. 13–16.

    3. The Government argues unpersuasively that it has a compelling
    interest in complying with the 1971 U. N. Convention. While this Court
    does not agree with the District Court that the Convention does not
    cover hoasca, that does not automatically mean that the Government has
    demonstrated a compelling interest in applying the Controlled
    Substances Act, which implements the Convention, to the UDV's
    sacramental use. At this stage, it suffices that the Government did not
    submit any evidence addressing the international consequences of
    granting the UDV an exemption, but simply relied on two affidavits by
    State Department officials attesting to the general (and undoubted)
    importance of honoring international obligations and maintaining the
    United States' leadership in the international war on drugs. Under
    RFRA, invocation of such general interests, standing alone, is not
    enough. Pp. 16–18.
    389 F. 3d 973, affirmed and remanded.

    ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other
    Members joined, except ALITO, J., who took no part in the consideration
    or decision of the case.

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