Drug warrant served at Rastafarian church raises questions about religious legal protections

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- A drug search warrant served Wednesday morning at Lion of Judah, House of Rastafari on W. Mifflin Street, as well as the arrests of church representatives, have raised questions about the line between church and state.

On Wednesday morning, Madison police entered the Rastafarian church, issuing charges against two people, including charges for delivery of marijuana and maintaining a drug dwelling.

Members of the church in Madison have said that marijuana is part of their religious practice. According to Howard Schweber, a political science professor and affiliate member of the law school at UW-Madison, this can raise "serious church-state issues."

"The federal constitution doesn't give the Rastafarian church any protections, but the Wisconsin state constitution might," Schweber said.

He also said there can be differences in protections on a state versus federal level.

"As far as the U.S. constitution is concerned, there's no question - Wisconsin, or Madison, is perfectly free to enforce laws against possessing or selling or using marijuana, and the fact that this group calls itself a church doesn't change the analysis at all," he said.

But there could be additional protections on the state level, according to Schweber.

"Under the Wisconsin state constitution, which we sometimes forget about, the protections for religious freedom are much greater," he said.

If further legal action is taken, Schweber said the church may use the argument that the law is burdening their religious practices.

"The Rastafarian church will make the argument that Wisconsin shouldn't be allowed to enforce its marijuana laws against this church - unless it can meet this very high standard of showing a compelling interest and no better way to achieve that goal - because it is a religious usage, the law burdens the religious practice," he said. "And generally speaking, where free exercise is concerned, courts are very very reluctant to question whether a religious teaching is valid or proper."

That "burden" can impact how these laws come into play.

"Prior to 1990 under the United States Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, any time a state wanted to apply a law in a way that burdened religious practice, they had to justify that by meeting a very very high standard of review," Schweber said.

In 1990, Schweber said that all changed with a new decision, which he said gave "no obligation to give accommodation to religious groups." Schweber said that also meant that states are free to grant those accommodations if they want to.

However, in 1996, Schweber said the Wisconsin Supreme Court reached a different conclusion, saying that under state constitution, the protections of religious freedom are greater, and remain what the standard was before 1990. He said that leaves Wisconsin "right back where we started," where the state could have to meet a high burden of showing compelling interest to justify actions against the church.

In a cease and desist document from the Office of the City Attorney issued in April, the assistant city attorney wrote that even if the group was a "legitimate 'church,'" selling and possessing marijuana, a Schedule I Controlled Substance, is not legal under Wisconsin State Statute. The document also says that "an individual's religious beliefs do not excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate."