Indiana's religious freedom law, signed by GOP Gov. Mike Pence, right, has effectively legalized marijuana for members of the First Church of Cannabis, says church founder Bill Levin, left.
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A new religion glorifying cannabis is officially incorporated in Indiana, and adherents plan to take full advantage of the state’s controversial religious freedom law.
 
That law – the Religious Freedom Restoration Act – generally bans state officials from burdening a person’s exercise of religion, “even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability."
 
Opponents say the law blesses discrimination by business owners against people they dislike, with most news coverage focused on the possible effects on sexual minorities.
 
Bill Levin, founder of the First Church of Cannabis, believes his religion will help restore the state's reputation after an intense bout of bad press.
 
“I created the fastest-growing religion in America last week,” Levin tells U.S. News. “I’ve got to cork the leak up that [Indiana Gov. Mike] Pence caused with love." 
 
Levin says he and other church members "all smoke religiously" and says supportive attorneys are advising him. He's working to find a facility with a large sanctuary.
 
“We have people who will be pilgriming in from California, from Maine, from Florida,” he says. “I planned this to be a small church of three to five hundred, but the numbers have staggeringly grown.”
 
On Thursday morning, the church had more than 21,000 likes on Facebook.
 
It’s unclear how state officials would react to church worship services, which Levin says will feature a “canna choir” and a band. Indiana does not allow medical or recreational use of marijuana.
 
Marijuana charges generally are pursued in state courts. But the new religious freedom law says the state cannot “substantially burden a person's exercise of religion” except when the state uses the “least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
 
It’s unclear if officials or courts would deem marijuana prohibition a compelling government interest, or if they would uncritically accept the church members' professions of faith.
 
“Of course I’m going to test this law. I’m not going to test it, I’m going to beat it,” Levin says. “We’re building a church with the cornerstone of love, the way religions are supposed to be built.”
 
Valerie Kroeger, a spokeswoman for the Indiana secretary of state's office, which granted the church's incorporation, says that process conferred no recognition that the group is a religious association.
 
"It basically means they filled out their paperwork properly and they are now a registered business," she says.
 
"There is no approval process or anything," she says, adding: "We don't do religious accreditation at the secretary of state's office."
 
Levin says the church will not grow marijuana for members, but will connect parishioners who bring their own cannabis products. He won’t comment on whether April 20 will become a religious holiday and says the church won’t strictly enforce a religious dogma.
 
Indiana’s religious freedom law is modeled on the federal 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which passed Congress after the Supreme Court found peyote-using American Indians lacked constitutional protection to violate drug laws. The Indiana law is a response to the recent court-ordered legalization of same-sex marriage and fear businesses will be forced to participate in weddings to which they object. 
 
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