Peyote policy a boost for religious freedom

Under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, citizens theoretically have the right to free exercise of religion. But Native Americans, in particular, have undergone religious persecution ranging from the destruction of sacred sites to the arrests of peyotists. In recent years, Congress has tried to reverse these injustices through legislation. For instance, it passed the 1993 Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act that allows Native Americans to use peyote — a cactus with hallucinogenic properties — in their religious ceremonies. Until last month, however, the U.S. Department of Defense kept a ban on peyote use by Native Americans in the armed forces. Since then, it has lifted the ban — a long overdue measure that finally puts the armed services in conference with federal law.
Prior to enactment of the military policy, Native American soldiers risked harassment, court-martial, prosecution and jail time if they practiced peyotism — a nucleus of many Native American religions. For many tribe members, consuming peyote serves spiritual and medicinal purposes; they believe it brings them closer to God and helps eradicate illness. Air Force Maj. Monica Aloisio, a Pentagon spokeswoman, concedes that the use of peyote in religious ceremonies is akin to Roman Catholics drinking wine during communion.
Of course, federal departments must reserve the right to outlaw religious practices that harm the health and safety of practitioners and citizens. But the 10,000 year-old peyotist ritual doesn’t fit this criteria. In fact, peyote is a non-addictive substance that has no long-term adverse effects when ingested in religious ceremonies. The Native American Church also forbids the recreational use of peyote and encourages followers to adhere to societal standards and laws. Moreover, Drug Enforcement Agency officials have testified that there is virtually no illegal trafficking or abuse of peyote by Native Americans.
However, military officials countered that the use of peyote could impair Native American soldiers’ ability to enforce order, safety and security. Their ban on peyotism was primarily intended to protect citizens’ safety. But medical studies show that peyote’s physiological and psychological effects, including intoxication and hallucinations, do not last beyond 12 hours. Under federal law, the military can enforce reasonable restrictions on peyote use prior to performance of official duties and on the transportation of peyote on military bases. Consequently, the new policy states that peyote must not be used, possessed or transported aboard military installations without the commander’s consent.
Although the policy limits peyote consumption, it’s a reasonable compromise between Native Americans’ right to religious expression and the military’s duty to enforce safety regulations. Under the new military guidelines, only Indian tribe members are allowed to use peyote. Because of Native Americans’ legal status under the Constitution, separate legislation is warranted. The new policy is a major victory for Indian tribes, religious leaders, civil libertarians and the 250,000 Native American Church members who rightly maintain that peyotism is protected under the First Amendment.