A federal judge in California has ruled against a motion from the U.S. Attorney General’s office to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a church that uses the psychedelic brew ayahuasca as a sacrament. The suit was filed last year by the Church of the Celestial Heart after a shipment of ayahuasca to the church was intercepted by law enforcement officials.
The legal action, which names U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and other federal officials as defendants in the case, was filed by Jade Osborne, the wife of the Church of the Celestial Heart’s pastor Kai Karrel and the intended recipient of the shipment. After the ayahuasca shipment was intercepted, Osborne was arrested and criminally charged in 2021 by authorities in Tulare County, although prosecutors have not filed formal charges.
Osborne, the church, and additional plaintiffs maintain in the lawsuit filed in April 2023 that the federal government is forcing them to choose between practicing their religion or going against their beliefs to avoid prosecution by law enforcement.
“Ayahuasca is an essential sacrament for Karrel, without which he cannot practice his religion or provide services to the church’s members,” the church writes in its suit, according to a report from Courthouse News Service. “Despite these threats, Karrel intends to continue possessing and using the church’s sacrament — ayahuasca.”
In the legal action, the church is seeking preliminary and permanent injunctions barring Garland and federal officials from prosecuting members of the church for using ayahuasca. The suit also requests attorney’s fees and other forms of relief from the government.
AG Files Motion To Dismiss Case
The attorney general’s office filed a motion to dismiss the case, maintaining that the church did state a claim in its filing and does not have standing to file the suit because the seizure was not an injury caused by the named defendants in the case. Although the Department of Homeland Security seized the shipment of ayahuasca, an official with the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office investigated the case and arrested Osborne. The motion also requested that if the case was not dismissed, it be stayed until the church applies for a religious exemption to the Controlled Substances Act.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Stanley A. Boone ruled against the attorney general’s office on all counts.
“The court finds plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged a genuine threat of imminent prosecution … and this supports the conclusion that plaintiffs have demonstrated standing,” the judge wrote in his decision.
Boone noted in his decision that church members intend to continue importing, possessing and using ayahuasca because the church cannot function properly without the sacrament. Members of the church also intend to continue using ayahuasca in its rituals, even with the threat of prosecution from federal and local authorities.
“Here, Celestial Heart alleges it has suffered both financial and spiritual loss having its sacrament confiscated and destroyed,” the judge wrote. “That it is substantially burdened by being forced to choose between following the tenets of its religion or being coerced to act contrary to its religious beliefs by the threat of civil or criminal sanctions; and that it intends to continue importing, possessing, and using its sacrament, for without its sacrament, the Church cannot provide essential services.”
Church members say they believe the ayahuasca was destroyed after it was seized. But the judge determined that even if the brew was destroyed, the threat of federal prosecution of church members could be traced back to the federal officials named in the lawsuit.
Boone also ruled against the attorney general’s motion to stay the case to allow the Drug Enforcement Administration to investigate the religious exemption claims made by the church.
Sean T. McAllister, a Denver attorney representing the Church of the Celestial Heart, declined a request from the Courthouse News Service to comment on the legal action.
“Here, Celestial Heart alleges it has suffered both financial and spiritual loss having its sacrament confiscated and destroyed,” Boone wrote. “That it is substantially burdened by being forced to choose between following the tenets of its religion or being coerced to act contrary to its religious beliefs by the threat of civil or criminal sanctions; and that it intends to continue importing, possessing, and using its sacrament, for without its sacrament, the Church cannot provide essential services.”