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The First Church of Cannabis

The battle over gay marriage led to the RFRA, which in turn led to a strange new southside church devoted to marijuana. Could pot be the next wedge issue in Indiana?

If the dozens of police cars stationed in the sleepy Sarah Shank neighborhood on July 1 were any indication, the southside enclave was a very safe place to be that morning. As an Indianapolis Power & Light truck arrived to install a surveillance camera atop a utility pole facing the newly formed First Church of Cannabis, aging hippies mixed with a throng of television reporters on the front lawn. Across the street, a line of protestors from the nearby Church of Acts hoisted signs aimed at their new neighbor: “Religious Freedom Does Not Mean Freedom To Commit Crimes!” and “I Guess They Do Grow More Than Corn In Indiana.” An elderly woman standing in the yard next door could only bury her face in her hands.

After months of speculation and media sparring, the big day had finally arrived. Local eccentric, proud stoner, and First Church “Grand Poobah” Bill Levin was about to gather his flock for an inaugural service. When Indiana passed its Religious Freedom Restoration Act last March, Levin claimed, it paved the way for the use of marijuana as a sacrament. Indianapolis police chief Rick Hite and Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry disagreed. A few days earlier, they had publicly threatened to arrest any church members caught with pot. So Levin advised parishioners not to bring it to the first gathering as the church pursued civil action against the state. Still, everyone was wondering of Levin: Would he or wouldn’t he? And of the cops brandishing handcuffs at the door: Would they or wouldn’t they?

Inside, a gospel band blasted Rick James’s “Mary Jane” and other bong-friendly hits to open the service. Levin invited one parishioner after another up to the altar to testify about the benefits of medical marijuana. When it was time for his own homily, Levin asked his flock to face the long row of reporters along the back wall, painted with a mural of God handing Adam a joint. “Turn around and look at all those cameras, folks,” he said. “Tell ’em, ‘We love you!’”

And with that, absent a single doobie passed or arrest made, Levin broadcast his message of legalization to hundreds of thousands.

 

Past the peacocks and goats in his front yard, through a living room cluttered with leopard-print furniture and a cotton-candy machine, and up a stairway lined with yellowing Vogue and Patio promotions, Levin tells his life story poster by poster. A former manager of local punk band the Zero Boys and a concert promoter, he points his cigar at each parchment as he recalls hazy memories of organizing the performances. All the while, his cellphone rings repeatedly. Since word of the First Church reached the media, The Washington Post, Forbes, USA Today, ABC, CBS, NBC, and international outlets from Nigeria to Israel have been calling. He pauses mid-story to tell a reporter on the phone he needs another 30 minutes, and then returns to his yarn. “I like putting on shows,” he says. “That’s what I do.”

More accurately, what Levin does is rebel. Born into a Jewish family in 1955, he ran away from home at age 13. The emerging punk-rock scene swept him up for a couple of decades before he found another calling in marijuana advocacy. Levin refers to the plant as the “greatest health supplement on Earth” and has the mad-scientist hair of someone who smokes a lot of it. He was an early board member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws here. That passion led him to run (unsuccessfully) for city-county council in 2011 and for state representative in 2014 as a Libertarian whose platform was, essentially, “Legalize it.” Ever the iconoclast, Levin refuses to even recognize his street near the State Fairgrounds as part of the United Northeast neighborhood to the north or the Martindale neighborhood to the south.  “We’re the Fuck You block,” he says, smiling.

When debate began on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act at the Statehouse in early 2015, Levin was a vocal opponent of what he saw as legislative bigotry against the LGBT community. But the idea for a test of the law didn’t originate with him. Abdul Hakim-Shabazz, host of the WIBC radio show Abdul at Large, sat in Nicky Blaine’s one night as the RFRA neared passage and ruminated on its potential implications. Shabazz knew Levin from the latter’s political campaigns. The radio personality did not share Levin’s love of the herb. But when it occurred to Shabazz that a faith-based defense might be possible for marijuana use under the new law, he posted a quick note about it on the eccentric’s Facebook page. And that was the spark Levin needed.

On March 27, the day after Governor Mike Pence signed the RFRA into law, Levin created a Facebook account for “The First Church of Cannabis” and applied for religious corporation status in Indiana. Secretary of State Connie Lawson approved it that day. Over the next two months, Levin brought together a board including local attorney Jon Sturgill and RadioNext host Derrick Muncie. Together, they convinced the IRS to grant the organization tax-exempt status in an unheard-of 27 days, so the nearly $20,000 they raised on gofundme.com went straight toward the purchase of an empty church building on South Rural Street.

The original plan was to light up on July 1 and dare the police to arrest parishioners, setting the stage for a test of the RFRA in the criminal courts. But when the police chief and the prosecutor held a June 26 press conference warning of arrests and comparing Levin to cult leader Jim Jones, the Grand Poobah had the allegation of slander and threat of injury (arrest) he needed for a civil suit. Shortly after the first service, he filed it. A federal court will take up the issue this fall.

Had authorities mostly ignored the First Church, a judge could be forgiven for dismissing Levin and his band of merry pranksters as goofballs. But the overwhelming display of force by IMPD, paired with the installation of the security camera, looked like persecution. Especially in light of Indy’s violent crime problem. As the first service commenced that day in July, dozens of shell casings littered 29th Street a few miles away, evidence of the city’s latest homicide. In photos from the crime scene, only two or three police cars appear to be onsite.

 

Those who consider the First Church a joke have probably forgotten that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 began with a couple of guys using peyote. A 1990 Supreme Court decision declared that a Native American group had no special right to use that controlled substance in its religious ceremonies despite a longstanding tradition of doing so. The act, co-authored by Senator Ted Kennedy and ultimately signed by President Bill Clinton, intended to undo that ruling and protect religious liberty. A few years later, the Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional as it applied to the states. But a piece of it relating to federal law survived, and it inspired 20 states including Indiana to enact their own similar legislation.

Indiana’s RFRA alarmed more than LGBT activists who believed it targeted that group for discrimination. As the bill made its way through the House in early 2015, Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry released a letter to local media outlets warning about unintended consequences. “It seems obvious that under the plain language of the bill, the RFRA could be asserted as a defense [for criminal behavior],” he wrote. What was lost on Indiana’s legislators was not lost on Levin. And thanks to that language, the state must now prove a “compelling government interest” in burdening the First Church’s exercise of religion.

“As a lawyer who deals with Constitutional matters frequently,” says Ken Falk, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, “I can tell you that when it comes to the ‘compelling government interest’ standard, the government usually loses. It’s a high bar.”

Some legal experts disagree. Although Robert Katz, a professor at Indiana University’s Robert McKinney School of Law, acknowledges that the First Church’s stance resembles the original case that prompted the federal RFRA, he sees critical differences. One could argue that the government’s interest in banning marijuana (an epidemic) is a lot more compelling than its interest in banning peyote (a rare drug). Rastafarians, he points out, haven’t fared particularly well in U.S. courts when arguing for marijuana as a sacrament—and they have a longer-standing tradition than the First Church.

Which brings up another legal hurdle that any litigant hoping to assert faith as a reason for criminal behavior will have to clear: sincerity. If you ask Indiana state senator Scott Schneider (co-author of the Indiana RFRA), Levin’s church is a hoax. “This seems to be born out of somebody’s silly desire to circumvent the law,” he says. “I don’t see any parallels between this and Native Americans using peyote. A longstanding tradition is in a completely different ballpark.”

 

Whether or not the First Church succeeds in cloaking itself in the RFRA, it has already brought marijuana legal reform back into public discussion. Indiana state senator Karen Tallian, a Democrat who was running for governor this summer, favors “sensible marijuana reform.” She says attitudes are changing almost as rapidly about that issue as they did about gay marriage. Tallian recalls sitting in court one day watching case after case of young kids pleading guilty to possessing a small amount of marijuana. About 15,000 such cases make their way through the Indiana system every year. It struck her as wasteful and absurd.

In 2011, Tallian filed her first bill (SB 192) aimed at eliminating penalties for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. It died in the Criminal Code Enforcement Committee, never making it to the Senate floor for a vote. Every year since, she has introduced a similar bill with the same result. But she claims the reception warms a little bit each session, especially since she began to focus on medical marijuana. “Five years ago, when I filed my first bill on this issue,” she says, “people would sidle up to me and ask me about ‘that bill. You know the one.’ They were afraid to even say it! Now, it’s ‘Good for you on that medical-marijuana bill.’ And that was from my friend’s mother, an 86-year-old Republican.”

Even in conservative Indiana, a recent Ball State University poll found that 53 percent of Hoosiers are in favor of decriminalizing pot. That figure mirrors the 54 percent who support gay marriage, which seemed so unlikely just a few years ago. And while it’s true that the Republican supermajority in the Indiana Statehouse has so far resisted taking up the issue, Tallian argues that has more to do with the current governor than it does the politics of the senators and representatives. She recalls meeting with Governor Mitch Daniels on the eve of introducing her first decriminalization bill. “We had a good conversation about it,” she says. “He smiled and said, ‘Well, the legislature can do whatever it wants.’ When I had a conversation about it with Mike Pence, he just shook his head in disgust and said, ‘That will never happen.’ In the current political climate, the legislature would be a lot more open to this if they weren’t getting pressure from the executive not to do it.”

Not surprisingly, the First Church embraced Tallian as a gubernatorial candidate and supported her until she dropped out of the race in August. Tallian isn’t taking a position on the group’s legitimacy or the lawsuit, but she admits to being amused by it.

Levin and the faithful continue to gather every Wednesday evening, hoping that their civil suit will clear the way for public use of the sacrament sometime soon. But their plans don’t end there. “Once we save enough money, we’re going to build our sanctuary: The Hemple,” Levin says. “It will be Earth-conscious, solar-powered. But our first goal is to get a church in every major city and hospital in Indiana. If we can expand to other states that have already legalized, that’s a possibility, too. We have people in Colorado and Washington, D.C., who are begging for us. It’s a weird show happening here.”

Comiskey joined the magazine in 2006, shortly after completing an MA in journalism at Indiana University. During graduate school, he served as arts & culture editor of the Indiana Alumni Magazine and wrote for newspapers throughout the state. Comiskey’s long-form features have won a number of Society of Professional Journalists Awards, and have taken him inside sperm banks, across the country in a semi, and to the home of the world’s smallest books. He lives in Zionsville with his wife and three children.

Email him at [email protected]
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