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A Southern California lawyer and church leader has filed a lawsuit against the county of Humboldt and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, alleging they violated his client's rights to religious freedom when they raided a cannabis grow and eradicated five greenhouse's worth of weed last month.

In the lawsuit filed June 27, Matthew Pappas alleges that his client, the Redwood Spiritual Healing Ministry, described as a "nonprofit religious entity," was using its property to "grow cannabis in a manner that meets exacting religious requirements for spiritual cannabis of church and its related association," the Association of Sacramental Ministries, a nonprofit made up of member churches.

"The primary and central belief of (the church) centers around the sacramental use of cannabis, its properties as an entheogen and the healing powers of cannabis," the lawsuit states. "(The church) uses church property in part to cultivate, in accordance with strict requirements for spiritual cannabis used by its members in branches in California, cannabis sacrament that is used by thousands of church members that are part of the church association."

The trouble — in the eyes of the county and the state — is that while the church may have been operating in accordance with strict spiritual requirements, it was not operating within state law, which would have required state and county permits and adherence to the state's maze of regulations. So on June 11, officers with the county and DFW raided the property and eradicated all the sacrament. (Also worth noting: the Redwood Spiritual Healing Ministry is not registered as a nonprofit in California and has apparently not filed required disclosure forms with the IRS, and the Association of Sacramental Ministries is listed as having dissolved in 2018 by the California Secretary of State's Office, just seven months after it registered.)

Pappas alleges this violated his clients' rights to free exercise of religion and due process, essentially saying that the church should be free to grow and distribute its sacrament — or practice its religion — as it sees fit without state regulation, and that cutting down all those plants amounted to a punishment without proper judicial process.

In an interview with a reporter for www.kymkemp.com, which was first to report on the lawsuit, Pappas said he had been in communication with the county about the church's property and cannabis cultivation activities since last year, when code enforcement served the property with an abatement notice.

While novel, the case is certainly not without precedent. In fact, Pappas has filed a series of similar suits throughout California in recent years, seemingly with little success.

Case law has long carved out limited protections against drug law prosecutions for certain religious practices. In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Navajo members of the Native American Church had the right to use peyote in religious ceremonies and, more recently, the same court ruled in 2006 that a New Mexico church congregation could continue using a hallucenagenic tea in its services. The litmus test laid out by the court when considering whether illegal drug activity can be considered religious, is whether a judge believes there is a sincerity of belief — ie., that a congregation isn't just saying some stuff they don't believe to get high legally — and whether the religious exception would "substantially undermine" the government's ability to otherwise enforce the law.

It would seem Pappas has some heavy-duty lawyering to do in order to convince a judge that his clients weren't simply looking to grow and distribute a bunch of black market weed.

And it should be noted that Pappas, who himself seems to hold a central role in the church, comes to the case with a bit of a checkered legal past. He currently has a disciplinary action pending against him with the California State Bar, whose staff is recommending he be suspended from practicing law in California's Central District for at least six months because he "does not currently posses the mental and emotional health to competently practice law." The bar's action stems from allegations that in five separate cases he failed to show up for hearings, meet filing deadlines or keep his clients informed. While not mentioned in the bar proceedings, Pappas seems to have had similar issues with a cannabis sacrament case in Sonoma County that was dismissed in 2016 after he failed to show up for a mandated conference. (Courthouse News Service reported the story under the headline: "Lawyer No-Show Tanks Sacramental Pot Case.")

The Humboldt County case notes that in addition to the cannabis sacrament and the Bible, the church holds The Nine Epiphanies as its central scripture. According to an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Pappas wrote the epiphanies based on a series of dreams his daughter had after suffering a traumatic injury.

County counsel has declined to comment on the case filed last week, which seeks unlimited damages in excess of $25,000.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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