Church of Cannabis seeks sanctuary in RFRA; Hill asks court to rule for state

January 10, 2018
Bill Levin, center, speaks April 20 during the First Church of Cannabis’ march from the Statehouse to the City-County Building. (Photo courtesy of Neal Smith)

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill has asked a court to rule in the state’s favor against what he calls “a small group of marijuana enthusiasts operating in Indianapolis under the name ‘First Church of Cannabis.’”

hill-curtis-mug Hill

“The pro-marijuana plaintiffs began calling themselves a church in 2015 in order to poke fun at Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which they opposed, and to argue for the right to smoke pot as a matter of religious liberty,” read a Dec. 18 press release from Hill’s office. “On this basis, the group then filed a lawsuit against state and local officials seeking relief from Indiana’s anti-marijuana statutes.”

“RFRA was never intended to protect illegal conduct masquerading as religious faith,” Hill’s statement said. “Even if this were a bona fide religion in which the plaintiffs sincerely believed, the state’s compelling interest in protecting public health and safety from the dangers of drug abuse would override the plaintiffs’ desire to treat marijuana as some kind of sacrament.”

Indianapolis attorney Mark Small represents the church and said he was thrilled with Hill’s response to the lawsuit.

“I thought it was wonderful,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better one. Let’s look at it this way: The United States Supreme Court has said we will not go into the area of defining a religion. That’s because we have the First Amendment. … And we’re protected even more by the Indiana Constitution. [It] says we have freedom of conscience.”

The controversy is the latest unintended consequence of RFRA, which was signed into law by then-Gov. Mike Pence on March 26, 2015. After critics assailed it as discriminatory against LGBT Hoosiers, an amendment was signed the next month.

As for the Church of Cannabis, Small said other religions use intoxicants from peyote to dimethyltryptamine, and courts have provided legal protection for those sacraments.

Hill did not respond to repeated interview requests. A hearing on his motion for summary judgement before Marion Superior Judge Michael D. Keele is set for 1 p.m. March 6. The case is First Church of Cannabis v. State of Indiana, 49C01-1507-MI-022522.

Founding the church

Church founder (and self-described “Grand Poohbah”) Bill Levin said he grew up in a Jewish household but experienced a spiritual awakening in April 2001 when he visited the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, Thailand.

“I astral projected,” he said. “I shot out of my body. I went up about 20 feet in the air. The Buddha was up on a tall throne and when you came in you looked up to it. I went to the back of the room. … I was equal, looking directly at the Buddha from the back of the room. And then I started to weep uncontrollably. And the next thing I knew, I was back down on the ground.”

Levin, who had been a punk rock promoter in his earlier days, said this represented a turning point in his life.

“I left the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and I started to become healthy again, mentally, physically, and rebuilding more of a spiritual guide with my future,” he said. “I started walking around telling everybody I loved them. Started expressing an open heart in my daily activities and it grew from there. I didn’t like the sin, the guilt and the judgement of the existing religions. It didn’t make sense to me. So, I decided just to live in the day, follow a path of love, righteousness and truth, and here we are.”

After becoming an ordained minister online to marry local couples, Levin began fantasizing about starting his own church. He said passage of RFRA pushed him to action.

“RFRA was nothing more than fertilizer on seeds already planted,” he said. “The RFRA was and is a bill based on prejudice. … I have to sit back and think to myself, ‘How can I turn this into a positive thing?’”

The church, which operates as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3), had originally planned to open July 1, 2015, with a service including the use of marijuana as a sacrament. After threats of arrests, Levin instead decided to fight the legal battle first.

Levin said the reaction from neighbors has been mixed. The church has been vandalized multiple times. He said a pet peacock was murdered. “I’ve gotten everything from embraces to ‘You’re a sinner,’” he said.

A member’s perspective

Cathy Sipe is a master electrician at Butler University’s Jordan College of the Arts and is involved in the local Libertarian Party. (Levin has twice run unsuccessfully for local and state offices.)

“I started going (to the church) in support of Bill,” she said. “Not even necessarily for Libertarian reasons. Because it looked like an avenue toward legalization that hasn’t been tried before. It is obviously, one that hadn’t been tried before, but it looked like it might work better, at least differently than other ones had.”

Sipe said she rejected Hill’s assessment of the church as nothing more than a lark, and pointed to the lasting personal relationships built there. Levin dismisses the notion that church members must use cannabis, and pointed to Sipe as an example.

“The church is what the church is, but the church is more than just trying to legalize cannabis,” said Sipe, who was raised Catholic. “They have also created a very interesting and widespread community with it. Which is what churches should do. Churches should be community. … It’s not strictly because everyone wants to hang out and get high. … There is a community and the faith in humanity involved.”

Another lawsuit

Just days before the church’s opening, then-IMPD chief Rick Hite held a press conference during which he compared Levin to cult leader Jim Jones, an Indiana native who led more than 900 of his Peoples Temple followers to their deaths in a 1978 murder-suicide massacre in Guyana.

“As Jim Jones once did in our state, he led a group of people into a place of no return,” Hite said on June 26, 2015. “We don’t want that to happen ever again in our history. And we want to send a message: This is not the way to challenge a law. And you certainly can’t expect the police to stand by and watch it happen and not do something about it.”

Last year, Levin sued Hite, the city of Indianapolis and the IMPD for defamation. The case, Bill Levin v. Rick Hite, et al., 49D05-1603-MI-007837, is pending before Marion Superior Judge John M.T. Chavis II.

Hite resigned from IMPD at the end of 2015. He then worked as executive director at the Indiana Civil Rights Commission before becoming chief inspector with the Indiana Department of Correction in April 2016. He retired at the end of 2017.

“I can’t comment on it,” Hite said of Levin’s suit. “I think justice will prevail either way. I think the good lord knows we all have to stay on the side of right, and that’s it. That’s all I have to say.”•



Recent Articles by Rob Burgess