Pubdate: Sun, 24 May 2015
Source: Providence Journal, The (RI)
Copyright: 2015 The Providence Journal Company
Author: Tracee M. Herbaugh
Bookmark: (Spiritual or Sacramental)


PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Members of a local church who use marijuana in 
various forms for what they claim is a religious ritual gathered at 
Roger Williams National Memorial on Saturday, while several U.S. Park 
Service police officers watched to make sure no one in the group 
smoked on federal property.

Instead, four members of the West Greenwich-based Healing Church 
anointed each other with cannabis-infused oil at the well at the 
park. They also drank a jar full of a white liquid, called bhang, 
made from fermented kefir grains, honey and marijuana. But they 
didn't smoke because authorities made it clear that smoking marijuana 
on federal grounds would not be tolerated.

"This is more than we want to smoke marijuana in the park," said Anne 
Armstrong, an organizer of the church. "This well is the birthplace 
of religious freedom. Are we still a free country? What happened?"

The church usually meets at 99 Hudson Pond Rd. in West Greenwich, the 
home of Armstrong and Alan Gordon, also a church organizer. But they 
wanted to hold a ceremony at the park's well because they believe it 
represents a holy spring mentioned in the Bible's Book of Revelation.

For parishioners at the Healing Church, cannabis is "sacred matter," 
and a gift from God. Members argue it's well within their First 
Amendment rights to smoke cannabis since it is a religious ritual.

Instead, Armstrong, Gordon and about 15 others, walked the perimeter 
of the park on the sidewalk seven times, while smoking joints. Four 
U.S. Park Service police cruisers sat at the park's entrance on Canal 
Street the entire time the group assembled.

The Healing Church has been informally holding services that 
incorporate cannabis for about a year. For more than a week, though, 
they have been holding daily hour-long novenas, or prayer offerings, 
at the federal property. The church applied, and was issued a permit, 
from the National Park Service allowing a gathering of up to 100 
people for Saturday night.

Saturday was chosen by the church because it's both the Hebrew 
holiday of Shavuot, the commemoration of God's giving of the Torah to 
the Jewish people on Mount Sinai, and, for Christians, it's the eve 
of Pentecost, which celebrates the Holy Spirit descending upon the 
apostles at the end of the Easter season.

Authorities, however, disagree. The novenas have been interrupted 
three times by the police, and some church members have been issued $100 fines.

Last Sunday, a park ranger left after the group asserted their right 
to conduct religious activities. After they were finished, two 
Providence police officers asked them to leave unless they had a 
permit for that day.

Then, on Monday, a federal law enforcement officer asked Armstrong 
for her name, but she began singing "Amazing Grace." The officer 
tried to question Gordon and began seizing the "sacred matter" and 
the vessels for smoking it, but left after being informed they were 
religious objects.

On Tuesday, two federal law enforcement officers, with four 
Providence police officers, stopped the pair as they lit their glass 
pipe, which Gordon called a chalice. The officers seized their sacred 
matter, Gordon said, and tried to take a jar of anointing oil, but 
Armstrong drank "every last drop."

Earlier this month, Gordon expressed that obtaining the permit is "a 
recognition of our right to use cannabis ... with the implied 
constitutional loophole in there."

- -With reports by staff writer Donita Naylor
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom