Image of Bill Levin, founder of Indian's First Church of Cannabis.
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The newly formed First Church of Cannabis appears to some observers as an excuse for potheads to get together and light up.
But the "grand poobah" of what followers describe as a new Indiana religion insists there is sanctity in the self-described ministry.
"This is what I live by, and I have more faith in this religion than any other," said Bill Levin, the founder who plans to hold the group's first official service on July 1 — the day Indiana's new Religious Freedom Restoration Act takes effect.
"This is my lifestyle. This is millions of people's lifestyle."
Levin, whose church titles include grand poobah and minister of love, is daring police to arrest him and his followers in what will likely be one of the first tests of the state's new RFRA protections.
RFRA, designed to protect religion from being infringed upon by the government, drew unanticipated attention on the Hoosier state when it became widely viewed as a license to allow business owners to refuse service to same-sex couples.
Under intense public pressure, Indiana lawmakers amended RFRA to specify that it can't be used to undermine local human rights ordinances that protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination in Indianapolis and 10 other cities.
Experts say the act opens a new doorway in Indiana that invites a host of legal challenges from religious practitioners throughout the state. Challenges like this one from the First Church of Cannabis.
"It's not the type of plaintiff that was expected or that probably most supporters of RFRA had in mind," said Robert A. Katz, a professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis.
"He is not the first person to frame marijuana in terms of free exercise of religion, and he won't be the last."
It's still unclear where Levin will perform the service, but the group appears to have quickly built a following.
The church has raised more than $10,000 through, but Levin said local churches have not been eager to lease him space at any price. He said he is still shopping around.
Levin said his church believes cannabis is a holy plant imbued with far-reaching health benefits. Consuming marijuana, he said, can rid the body of poisons ingested through processed food and sugary drinks.
The service, Levin said, will start with harmonica music, then he will discuss the church doctrines and teachings. The First Church of Cannabis has 12 commandments called the Deity Dozen, the first of which is don't be a seven-letter expletive that means jerk.
Levin, 59, is a longtime marijuana advocate and has been a Libertarian party candidate for seats in the U.S. Congress and the City-County Council. A self-employed carpenter and concert promoter, he is easily recognized by his spiky white hair, glasses and the cigar he often holds and smokes in public.
"At the end of the service, we will inaugurate the church by saying the Deity Dozen," Levin said. "We will bless our church, bless our people, and we will spark up."
Levin and his laity are prepared to be cited for violating laws against the consumption of marijuana on July 1.
Police in Indianapolis do not typically arrest people accused of petty offenses, such as smoking marijuana. If officers do anything, it's likely Levin and church worshipers will get a ticket and a court date.
"The possibility of getting arrested will always be there because there are people who do not read the laws the way I read them," Levin said. "That's when we have this discussion in the courts."
Once a case gets to the courts, the state under RFRA must prove a compelling reason for government to interfere with religious practices, said Ken Falk, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.
This elevated legal scrutiny makes it "very difficult for the government to win," Falk said. "That's something the court will have to wrestle with."
Falk pointed to other well-established religious traditions that are allowed. Catholics, Jews and members of other faiths drink wine at their services. Sometimes that wine is consumed by people who are under age 21.
"If you're drinking wine (and underage) in a nonreligious setting, you would be breaking the law," Falk said. "What's the justification if you smoke marijuana as part of your religion?"
Katz, the IU law professor, said the First Church of Cannabis will have to prove it's a sincere religion, not just an excuse for users to get together and smoke.
Katz doubts Levin will be able to convince a judge that the religion is true.
"If the past is any guide to experience, he's not going to get very far," Katz said.
"That's mainly because these people, while they are nice and delightful, are from a legal perspective that I think most judges would view them as goofballs."
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