Some legal groups see Tuesday's Supreme Court "tea" decision as an important precedent in religious freedom jurisprudence. Others see it as a harbinger of church-state relations under the Roberts court. But religious freedom advocates agree that the case means it will likely be harder for the government to limit expression after the ruling.

The Court ruled unanimously in favor of a New Mexico sect's bid to use hallucinogenic tea in religious rituals. Seen as a major religious liberty test case, several Christian legal groups, including the National Association of Evangelicals, had filed friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of the sect.

In his first religious freedom case, Chief Justice John Roberts said the sect's right to religious expression and practice superseded federal drug control laws that were used to confiscate the tea, known as hoasca.

Tuesday's ruling served as a strong endorsement of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires the government to show a "compelling interest" before it can limit religious freedom.

Roberts said the law gives courts the authority to "strike sensible balances" in weighing government regulation and religious expression.

Jared Leland, legal counsel for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, said the case is evidence that under Roberts, the Court will advocate religious liberty.

"With a smile on my face, I can say that there is certainly a bright future for religious liberty cases," Leland said. "The case is greatly significant because of the fact that the teeth of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act were sharpened. It increased the level of protection for all faith, especially less conventional faiths in the United States."

Religious groups had watched the case closely because it had wide implications for the right of all groups to practice their faith without risk of government interference.

"Today it's something about hallucinogenic tea, but tomorrow it could be something that Roman Catholics or Southern Baptists or a number of groups need some accommodation in relation to a federal law," said Charles Haynes, senior scholar for the First Amendment Center.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that in the interest of the nation's drug war, an exception to the Controlled Substances Act could not be made to allow the production of marijuana for medical use.

The 130-member O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao de Vegetal (UDV), said the tea that is brewed in the faith's Brazilian homeland gives members a "heightened spiritual awareness" that allows them to communicate with God. Members believe they can understand God only by drinking the tea, which is consumed twice a month at four-hour ceremonies.

The tea contains the drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is banned under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act and a 1971 international treaty that bans its importation.

Roberts rejected arguments that the use of hoasca threatened the drug law, and said the "circumscribed, sacramental use" of the drug for religious purposes could be allowed.

"The government's argument echoes the classic rejoinder of bureaucrats throughout history: If I make an exception for you, I'll have to make one for everybody, so no exceptions," Roberts wrote. "But RFRA operates by mandating consideration, under the compelling interest test, of exceptions to 'rule[s] of general applicability.'"

Both Roberts and the UDV's lawyers noted that peyote—which also contains DMT—has been allowed for 35 years in Native American religious rites.

Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel for Liberty Legal Institute, said the institute argued in its friend-of-the-court brief that because the government already allows Native Americans to use peyote, the case was not compelling.

"When they infringe on religious freedom, governments tend to theoretically argue that they have a compelling reason to interfere," Shackelford said. "This takes the mask off of those cases that say it's compelling."

Shackelford said the Court may not have found compelling interest in the case had it involved a larger religious group. "Are the facts of this case really important? No," he said. "But once you read this case, you see really important doctrines that will protect religious freedom for decades."

Roberts upheld two lower court decisions that said federal agents were wrong to confiscate the tea in 1999. The case now returns to lower courts, where the government is entitled to make its case more fully at a trial.

Justice Samuel Alito, the newest member of the Court, did not participate in arguments or the Court's decision, because the case was argued before he joined the bench.

Kevin Eckstrom is associate editor of Religion News Service. Sarah Pulliam is news intern for Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere:

The Supreme Court's decision Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal (04-1084) is available from the Court's website.

The First Amendment Center has news stories, court documents, and other information about the case.

Christianity Today's Weblog compiled news stories about the decision.