Embattled Indiana "pot church" might never be legal

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Remember The First Church of Cannabis's minister of love Bill Levin? Fusion touched on Levin's love of birds a few weeks back, but since then Levin's been ruffling some feathers of his own in his hometown of Indianapolis as his church revs up for its grand opening on July 1.


After Marion County prosectors asserted that they'd consider arresting anyone smoking pot in a press conference last Friday, Levin posted on his Facebook Monday that there'd be no smoking at the inaugural ceremony on Wednesday. Via Bill Levin's Facebook page:

Due to the threat of police action against our religion I feel it is important to CELEBRATE LIFE'S GREAT ADVENTURE in our first service WITHOUT THE USE OF CANNABIS. The Police dept has waged a display of shameless misconceptions and voluntary ignorance. We will do our first service without the use of any cannabis. CANNABIS WILL BE PROHIBITED ON THE FIRST SERVICE.

Levin's faced some legal complications in his attempt to erect a church for pot-smoking in a state where smoking pot is illegal, though some believe challenging Mike Pence's controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act—which "prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person's ability to practice his or her religion"—might be the whole point of the endeavor. Via the Indianapolis Star:

But he said his church is not a figurative middle finger to the lawmakers who maintain Indiana's legal ban on marijuana, or to Gov. Mike Pence and his allies who passed RFRA.

"I don't think they deserve the finger," Levin said. "I think they deserve gratitude. They helped clear the pathway to a bright, new, exciting religion that's going to dominate the world."

Though Levin insists his church isn't a "middle-finger" to the RFRA, it's easy to see how the church reads as explicit satire. If Pence's law is so broad as to allow any organization that calls itself religious to practice anything under the sun—a criticism levied against the legislation—then a pot-smoking church is the silliest, most infuriating way to exploit this loophole.

And if the church's goal is to highlight the absurdity of the RFRA, it appears to be working—the Associated Press described the Marion County prosecutors as "visibly frustrated."


"We do not view the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a legitimate defense to committing a crime," Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said during a press conference.

According to Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia, Levin's church has no shot at remaining legal under the RFRA. "It's not going to be legal for so many reasons," Laycock told Fusion.


Mainly, Laycock said, judges will recognize Levin's insincerity immediately—disingenuousness, however, is difficult to adjudicate. But Laycock says in these cases judges generally find another avenue of prosecution: In this case, specifically, it's that marijuana is still illegal on the federal level, and that supersedes any statewide law.

Even if the case remained at the state level, however, the RFRA disallows any institution to make claims toward religious freedom if there's a compelling government interest to do so. The compelling government interest, in this case, is the enforcement of recreational marijuana use.


"Enforcement would be impossible if anyone smoking a joint could claim religious freedom," Laycock said.

In other words, there's no way a judge looks at Levin's case and rules that there's legitimate justification for the need of religious freedom.


"RFRA acts as a balancing text, and leaves it to the judges," Laycock says. "No person other than a religious non-profit has gotten exempted from a civil rights law."

Michael Rosen is a reporter for Fusion based out of Oakland.