WASHINGTON -- A federal government operation that placed an undercover agent in a small church in Hawaii wound up shutting down the institution, led to the loss of thousands of dollars worth of "sacramental" items, and will likely put a minister and some members of his congregation behind bars for years.
That case also demonstrates why it would be OK to exempt Hobby Lobby from a federal regulation requiring for-profit companies to provide health insurance that covers birth control, according to lawyer Paul Clement. The former solicitor general made the craft store chain's case before the Supreme Court during Tuesday's oral arguments.
The church in question, THC Ministry, wasn't your average place of worship. It was, the feds alleged, a front organization that tried a creative method for possessing and distributing marijuana while avoiding prosecution on religious grounds.
Trying to refute the argument that a win for Hobby Lobby would encourage businesses to just make up religious beliefs to avoid federal laws, Clement on Tuesday pointed to cases in which federal courts have rejected arguments that defendants' marijuana use should be protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the very law that Hobby Lobby is citing in its challenge to Obamacare.
"You have people who are arrested in possession of large quantities of marijuana and they assert that they belong to the church of marijuana, and those cases do get litigated and they get rejected," Clement said.
Even if Hobby Lobby prevails and corporations are allowed to avoid certain government requirements because of the religious beliefs of their shareholders, Clement argued, judges will still be able to test the sincerity of those beliefs.
The sincerity argument is exactly where THC Ministry ran into trouble.
In a 126-page memo last May, federal prosecutors spelled out why they believed that the religious claims of THC Ministry founder Roger Christie and his wife were bogus, and argued that the couple shouldn't be able to use a Religious Freedom Restoration Act defense during a jury trial.
"The only difference between that aforesaid, typical drug trafficker and the Christies herein is that the latter operated their trafficking activities and realized their profits through the Ministry," prosecutors argued.
Before the feds took down the organization in 2010, the THC Ministry setup was to accept suggested "donations" for certain amounts of the "sacrament." One of the ministry's mistakes appears to have been practically spelling out the fact that it was a cover for a marijuana operation on its website.
"Among other wonderful things, our Ministry helps to protect you from arrest, prosecution and/or conviction of ‘marijuana’ charges -- wherever you live -- starting as soon as you sign-up, become ordained and receive your ministry documents," the website stated. "We provide a legitimate religious ‘defense to prosecution’ for sincere practitioners over 21 years old."
Prosecutors said that the Christies' conduct showed they weren't serious about their stated beliefs. "The bottom line is that from their own actions, there is no reason to believe that the Christies themselves sincerely believed what they have propounded as a matter of religion," the prosecutors argued.
The Christie prosecutors pointed in turn to a 1989 decision, Olsen v. Drug Enforcement Administration, handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Then-Circuit Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the DEA "cannot accommodate Olsen’s religious use of marijuana without unduly burdening or disrupting enforcement of the federal marijuana laws."
In the case of THC Ministry, U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi noted in the December 2013 final order that there was evidence suggesting "increasing recognition in the medical community of the benefits of marijuana and that there is increasing political sentiment that the federal government’s war on drugs, and criminal justice system in general, should be focused on crimes other than marijuana-related crimes." But that wasn't a decision for the courts to make, the judge wrote, and the government had an interest in enforcing marijuana laws.
Kobayashi, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, ultimately found that an "express service" set up by THC Ministry undermined the Christies' religious claims, since they had no means of ensuring that people who presented ministry ID cards were actually members of the ministry.
"Moreover, although Defendants themselves may have emphasized the requirement of sincerity in the use of marijuana as a religious sacrament, the majority of the persons who obtained marijuana from the THC Ministry did so through the express service, which did not require them to meet with either of Defendants," Kobayashi wrote.
The Christies pleaded guilty in the fall and are scheduled to be sentenced next month. A video about the ministry is posted below.
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