Photos by Michelle Craig
The headlines are tremendous:
This Guy Just Used The Indiana Religious Freedom Law To Open A Church Of Cannabis — The Libertarian Republic
Indiana's Church of Cannabis Growing Like a Weed — U.S. News and World Report
Whoops: Indiana's anti-gay 'religious freedom' act opens the door for the First Church of Cannabis — Raw Story
And most of the stories in print and online include the mug of a dude most Indy residents probably recognize: pot activist and sometime-political candidate Bill Levin. Levin's shock of white hair and joyfully craggy face first went nationally viral with his City-County Council campaign ad in 2011, a commercial that closed with Bill's signature tagline:
Levin's now founded the First Church of Cannabis — it's one of those unintended consequences of Indiana's version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the law that was eventually "clarified" by the legislature after a massive backlash. Opponents said RFRA was primarily intended to allow businesses to discriminate against a single class of Hoosiers who aren't protected under Indiana's broader civil rights statutes: LGBTQ citizens.
Ironically, the Federal version of RFRA in part stemmed from the use of a controlled substance by two Native Americans. The pair were denied unemployment compensation after being fired from their jobs for testing positive for the psychoactive components in peyote, a drug they used in religious ceremonies.
Levin decided to found his church the very day Gov. Mike Pence signed Indiana's RFRA into law. As the Washington Post reported on March 30, " Secretary of State Connie Lawson approved the church as a religious corporation with the stated intent 'to start a church based on love and understanding with compassion for all.'"
So what was the impetus? A chat with an attorney? A careful reading of the law?
"I had a divine vision," says Bill.
What Bill didn't envision was the church's instant notoriety.
"You live in Indy. You know how many turn out for cannabis support," Bill reminds me when I call him to talk about the church and its "cannataerian" worshippers. "We have 200, 300 people when we have a rally. I expected maybe a paragraph or two in NUVO, maybe a news blip and that would be it. We'd rent out a little 1,000-square-foot church and we'd try from there."
"I didn't expect this. I had to hire a personal assistant to read all my emails.
"It's in Dutch, in German; the story's appeared in Singapore, New Zealand.
"I was not prepared to have the fastest growing religion in the world."
Levin's dance card is pretty full: the man's been doing roughly one interview per hour since the story broke, including a drive-time appearance on WLS radio in Chicago that ended abruptly when a host who apparently hadn't done his research asked Bill about "The Deity Dozen," Levin's own commandments.
Bill started with the first one:
"The first pathway is don't be an asshole. Treat everyone equal. He turned me off the air," says Bill.
Bill began looking at buildings as the story went viral, and his plans for a small rental structure to house his fellow cannabis congregants soon grew well beyond his original notions.
"I figured $20,000 a year would cover our rent and take care of heat and gas. Right now, I am a firm believer that we need more than 1,000 square feet. We have everybody in the world, literally, wanting to come to our first service," says Levin.
Bill plans to take the church through its first year in a rental space, and then construct a building out of hempcrete, a composite of the tough core of the hemp plant and a lime binder. But Levin's got to do more than raise money for the new building: "I also need to change Indiana state law to consider hempcrete a valid building material in this state."
And for those who only think that Levin's using the new statute as a convenient excuse, Bill told the Post the church is planning on hosting outreach programs to battle both heroin and alcohol addiction — Bill says no booze will be allowed on the premises.
What about the church structure under Minister of Love and Grand Pooba Bill Levin? Will there be elders and deacons?
"We're not organizing like other churches. We're not like other guys," says Bill.
"You're all basing it on whatever magic book you guys were reading when you created your church. We are creating our own doctrine, and we are going to keep it as simple as fucking possible so it translates to every language."
Sure, Bill's going to confront a lot of push-back if someone actually torches one up as part of a worship service — the notion of "controlled-substance-as-sacrament" is still an incredibly murky area of the law.
Professor David Orentlicher from the I.U. McKinney School of Law offered this via email when NUVO asked if Levin has a winnable case, should it come to that: "There is a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the Court recognized an exemption from the Controlled Substances Act for a religious sect under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, 546 U.S. 418, 2006)." O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal (or UDV) is a Brazilian sect of Christianity. When some of its adherents moved to the States and were granted status as a religious group in their adopted home state of New Mexico, they began importing a tea called Hoasca. Hoasca is a bit more potent than your auntie's Earl Grey — the stuff contains enough psychedelic compounds to be qualified as a Schedule 1 drug by the feds.
Customs seized UDV's brew, the case was appealed until it reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and under the 1993 Federal RFRA law, the justices rendered a unanimous decision in favor of the church.
"So these kinds of claims are possible," says Orentlicher. "However, it's one thing for a well-established practice of a religion that was not created for the purpose of using drugs; it's quite another thing for a religion to be created for the purpose of using drugs."
On the other hand, Bill has a pretty long history of referring to weed as a kind of sacrament — just take a gander at the dude's political history, or simply check out his Facebook page.
Gavin Rose, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Indiana, says that courts are often reluctant to dictate what's a religion and what isn't: "Courts generally don't want to second-guess someone's religious beliefs." Under RFRA, it'll be up to someone besides Levin or the cops to determine if cannabis congregants are sincere — or if the state's interest in outlawing ganja outweighs the rights of Levin and his peeps to worship at the altar of THC.
Levin certainly won't be alone in his claims that his religious practices run counter to state and local statutes, by the way: practicing Wiccans in Indiana are already claiming that Indiana's RFRA law will allow them to dance naked in public the next time the moon's full.
"You can imagine the thousand and one unintended consequences of RFRA that are now going to bubble to the surface," says Rose.
"I think Bill Levin's church is a great response to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and could lead to some interesting court cases," says William H. Martin, defense attorney and vice chairman of Indiana NORML.
"The First Church of Cannabis is not the only church that believes that marijuana can be sacramental and used in a spiritual manner," Martin continues. "Mr. Pence wanted to implement the RFRA to protect all religions from government intrusion.
"It would be my opinion that the RFRA should protect The First Church of Cannabis just as much as it would any other religion."