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No, Indiana's religious freedom law won't let you start a marijuana church

Rastafarian symbols.
Rastafarian symbols.
Photofusion/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Sorry, Hoosiers, but you probably can't use Indiana's religious freedom law as an excuse to smoke marijuana — although residents like Bill Levin, founder of the First Church of Cannabis, are certainly trying.

Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which takes effect on July 1, allows people to challenge laws that "substantially burden" their religious practices without a compelling government interest.

Following the RFRA's passage, the Washington Post's Sarah Bailey and Huffington Post's Matt Ferner reported that Levin founded the First Church of Cannabis, which considers marijuana a sacrament, in an attempt to bypass the state's laws prohibiting marijuana for any purpose.

"It's a new religion for people who happen to live in our day and age," Levin told the Huffington Post on Monday, while discussing his church. "All these old religions, guys walking across the desert without Dr. Scholls inserts, drinking wine out of goat bladders, no compass, speaking Latin and Hebrew — I cannot relate to that shit. I drive by Burger Kings, bars, and corn fields. I cannot relate to an antique magic book."

But just like religious freedom laws have been around for decades, so have long-shot attempts to smoke marijuana by claiming religious beliefs. A 2013 look at these cases by Montana lawyer John Rhodes, published in the Oklahoma City University Law Review, found that these claims have almost always failed, except in situations involving Rastafarians, a religious group that considers marijuana a sacrament.

Defendants claimed they used marijuana for religious purposes, but judges by and large didn't buy it. One court told a defendant that his "professed beliefs have an ad hoc quality that neatly justif[ies] his desire to smoke marijuana." Other courts weren't as blunt, but they generally discarded non-Rastafarian religious beliefs as phony, according to Rhodes.

When it came to Rastafarian defendants, courts only allowed their marijuana use in limited settings. Judges found the government had a compelling interest to restrict pot in public settings, and they didn't allow criminal operations that sell the drug.

Based on these precedents, it's very unlikely that members of Indiana's First Church of Cannabis will have any luck trying to use marijuana under their new religion.

"I would predict that Indiana officials will eventually come down on folks who are smoking pot in this church," Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia, wrote to me in an email, "and that the Indiana RFRA will not provide them with a defense."

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