First Church of Cannabis founder Bill Levin reversed an initial decision to include cannabis in the recently formed religion’s first service, set for July 1. His Facebook page announced,
“We will do our first service without the use of any cannabis. CANNABIS WILL BE PROHIBITED ON THE FIRST SERVICE.”
According to Levin, the decision does not reflect a change of heart or mission concerning his dedication to promoting the legal use of marijuana. He says it is, instead, a response to a warning issued by local police that everyone present at the event would be subject to arrest. Local law enforcement announced it would charge people smoking marijuana with possession. Even abstaining observers could be charged with promoting a common nuisance. Both are Class B misdemeanors in Indianapolis, subject to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Indianapolis Police Department Chief Rick Hite said,
“I think it’s important to know that we’re not trying to create a police state.”
Levin founded the church earlier this year. The first service is planned for the same day that Senate Bill 101, or Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, goes into effect. Under the act, the government may not “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.”
Levin, a long time activist for the legalization of marijuana, says that the new church doctrine bases itself on “love without sexism,” and that cannabis plays a sacramental role in the church’s religious practice. Levin said,
“If cannabis helps us communicate with ourselves, our friends and higher deities, there’s no reason we shouldn’t celebrate life’s great adventure together with cannabis.”
In interviews, Levin has expressed his conviction that the cannabis plant can play a central role in human health and wellbeing.
“The endocannabinoid system within our own bodies,”
“We are wired…hard-wired for this.”
It took 27 days from the time Levin submitted an application for the IRS to bestow nonprofit status on the church. Under 501 (c) (3), donors can deduct gifts on their federal tax return. The church itself is now exempt from property taxes, a benefit that became relevant when it established its physical home recently on the southeast side of Indianapolis. The church has raised over $16,000 thus far through crowd sourcing. Over 44,000 followers have liked the church on Facebook.
Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry has expressed his understanding that Levin’s efforts to engage with the RFRA are an outgrowth of his advocacy for the legalization of marijuana in Indiana. In several meetings, however, Curry has made it clear to Levin that use of marijuana at the service would be treated as a criminal act.
Some people expressed disappointment at Levin’s decision to back down from his initial promise to include cannabis in the service, saying it was a missed opportunity for advocates to practice civil disobedience. In his reversal, however, Levin cited his belief that the church would have a stronger voice in civil court than in criminal court. He wrote,
“We do not start fights. We Finish Them!”
Levin’s legal representative issued a statement to say that anyone who possesses or uses marijuana during the service does so without Levin’s “knowledge or intent.” The first service is set for noon on Wednesday, July 1.
Below are some attendee photos of the first service:
photo credit: IndyStar Facebook
The same day Indiana Governor, Mike Pence, signed the bill known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), paperwork was also submitted to register The First Church of Cannabis Inc. as a non-profit organization in the Hoosier State.
As it turns out, the recently enacted controversial law prevents the state (Indiana) government from “substantially burdening” a person’s right to exercise religion.
Lawmakers likely had no idea of the far-reaching effects of the decision to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Indiana Governor, Mike Pence, reported that the RFRA is meant to ensure that the government does not infringe on peoples’ religious beliefs. He contends that he wants to ensure that Indiana remains a state where all faiths are respected.
Others think that it is really meant to protect business owners from being compelled to provide services for same-sex weddings. Indiana was the recipient of a fair amount of negative comments following refusal by some establishments to supply cakes, flowers or photography for this purpose.
Bill Levin, found of The First Church of Cannabis, does not care about the intentions behind the new law, however, and is poised and ready to take advantage of it. Levin’s registration paperwork for The First Church of Cannabis has since been approved, and on the day that the RFRA becomes law, Levin intends to hold the church’s first service with sacrament.
On July 1, Levin will call to worship, and the sanctuary will fill with the sweet smell of sacramental cannabis.
According to the tenets of the church, cannabis is a holy sacrament. Therefore, the new act — albeit inadvertently — likely sanctions the smoking of marijuana during services. Although the proof will be seen when the service is allowed to take place unimpeded, the founder feels it is unlikely that they will be disturbed by law enforcement.
Levin is banking on the government not wanting to be on the receiving end of any more bad press. According to him, he’s had even right-wing conservatives giving him the thumbs up.
The church founder is not just trying to get a free pass at getting high, however. He believes that old religions no longer reflect the needs of the time. Church members feel that marijuana:
“Brings us closer to ourselves and others. It is our fountain of health, our love, curing us from illness and depression. We embrace it with our whole heart and spirit, individually and as a group.”
In line with these beliefs, the first service will include, in addition to a short sermon, testimonies from members about positive experiences in their lives.
Without a doubt, eyes will be turned toward Indiana on July 1 when the act becomes law, as well as afterward. First, to see if the church services are, indeed, left undisturbed. Second, to see how this religion unfolds as time goes on.
The same day Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, paperwork was also submitted to register The First Church of Cannabis Inc. as a non-profit organization.
The church, founded by Bill Levin, promoted the filing with the Secretary of State via Facebook, and pointed out,
“Cannaterians… would seek love, understanding and good health.”
Via Bill Levin Facebook Page
The recently enacted controversial law prevents the state (Indiana) government from “substantially burdening” a person’s right to exercise religion only if it can demonstrate that it is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.
First brought to light by local Indiana politics reporter, Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, this law may be helpful for members of The First Church of Cannabis and others who use the plant as a religious sacrament. Now, in order to press charges, the state government would have to prove a compelling interest in preventing a person from using cannabis as a sacrament.
Arguably, that may not be possible considering the fact that nearly half of the United States have legalize the medicinal use of marijuana, and four states have legalized recreational use. Indiana state government officials have their work cut out for them.
Shabazz notes several instances of active religions that cite cannabis consumption as part of their rituals — Hindu, Buddhist, Rastafari.
As for Levin’s efforts, all members of the First Church of Cannabis will be asked for a donation of $4.20 a month.