[Chapter 08] Keeping the Faith: The Right to Religious Freedom

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Navajos arrested for ceremonial use of peyoteNavajos arrested for ceremonial use of peyoteThe town of Needles hugs the western border of the Colorado River, which separates the far eastern tip of San Bernardino County from Arizona and Nevada. On the evening of April 28, 1962, Jack Woody, Dan Dee Nez, and Leon B. Anderson gathered in a traditional hogan in the desert west of Needles. Members of the Native American Church of North America, the three men joined others for an all-night ritual central to their religion.

"Faith in our church things"

After police entered the hogan and announced that they were arresting all of the participants, one of them naively handed the officers a photocopy of the articles of incorporation of the Native American Church in a gold frame. The first part of the document read, "[W]e as a people place explicit faith and hope and belief in the Almighty God and declare full, competent, and everlasting faith in our Church things which and by which we worship God." Thus far, the statement differed little from mainstream monotheistic declarations of faith. The next sentence, however, distinguished the Church from other religions: "[W]e further pledge ourselves to work for unity with the sacramental use of peyote and its religious use."

The officers dismissed the religious claim and arrested Woody and the others for violating a California narcotics law banning the unauthorized possession of peyote.

Sacramental Use of Peyote

Peyote buttons grow on the tops of small cacti native to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and Mexico. When chewed or brewed in a tea, peyote buttons release mescaline, which induces hallucinations of kaleidoscopic colors and patterns. Peyote generates in many people feelings of openness and well-being and a heightened state of consciousness.

Members of the Native American Church blend the use of peyote with Christian theology. They believe that peyote is an embodiment of the Holy Spirit and that those who ingest it come into direct contact with God. Adherents direct prayers to peyote buttons, believing them to be objects of worship and symbols of protection.

The ceremony in which Woody and the other men were arrested was typical of Native American Church gatherings. It began at sundown on Saturday and was scheduled to end at sunrise the following day. An individual "sponsored" or convened the meeting as an expression of gratitude for good fortune or to seek guidance. The sponsor provided the peyote and breakfast the morning after the ritual. Befitting a solemn religious occasion, participants dressed formally in suits and dresses or ceremonial Indian garb. Although entire families attended meetings, only men consumed peyote. At an early point in the ritual, each man would take four buttons and chew them.

In November 1962, San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Carl Hilliard found the three Navajos guilty, imposed a prison sentence, and released them on probation. The court of appeal in San Diego upheld the convictions.

State Supreme Court Hears the Case

Rufus W. Johnson, a fifty-three-year-old former butler to Franklin D. Roosevelt and a decorated veteran of the all-black Buffalo Soldiers unit that fought in Italy during World War II, agreed to represent Woody and his codefendants before the state supreme court.

The Navajos claimed that the law infringed on their First Amendment right to the free exercise of their religion. The state argued that making an exception for adherents of the Native American Church to use peyote would open the door to fraudulent claims of religious uses. The court applied a test formulated by the U.S. Supreme Court: does the law create a barrier to the free exercise of religion, and if so, is there a compelling state interest for doing so? In a 6-1 decision, the high court ruled that the state could not constitutionally prosecute those using peyote in Native American Church rituals.

Theological Heart of Peyotism

Writing for the majority, Justice Matthew Tobriner explained that forbidding the use of peyote was equivalent to removing the "theological heart of Peyotism." He stated that when balancing the heavy weight of denying the church members the free exercise of their religion against the "slight danger to the state and to the enforcement of its laws," the "scale tips in favor of the constitutional protection."

He was particularly perturbed by the state attorney general's argument that peyote "obstructs enlightenment and shackles the Indian to primitive conditions" and that the state had a responsibility to eliminate its use. In a pointed response, Tobriner explained, "We know of no doctrine that the state, in its asserted omniscience, should undertake to deny to defendants the observance of their religion in order to free them from the suppositious 'shackles' of their 'unenlightened' and 'primitive' condition.'" He concluded:

In a mass society, which presses at every point toward conformity, the protection of self-expression, however unique, of the individual and the group becomes ever more important. The varying currents of the subcultures that flow into the mainstream of our national life give it depth and beauty. We preserve a greater value than an ancient tradition when we protect the rights of the Indians who honestly practiced an old religion in using peyote one night at a meeting in a desert hogan near Needles, California.

Read more chapter excerpts »

Share this
Keywords: