Pubdate: Thu, 02 Jul 2015
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2015 The New York Times Company
Author: Monica Davey


INDIANAPOLIS - On the altar, behind a row of flickering candles, the 
silhouette outline of a marijuana leaf shined in lights. Colored 
balloons occasionally bounced through the air as the minister of 
music led a band in a pew-shaking rendition of "Mary Jane," the funk 
tribute to the drug. And Bill Levin, who was introduced as "the Grand 
Poobah" of this new church, finished the gathering with a simple 
message: "Light up, folks!"

As legislation that proponents call a religious freedom law took 
effect in Indiana on Wednesday, Mr. Levin's First Church of Cannabis 
held its first service in a quiet neighborhood on this city's 
Eastside. Mr. Levin, who is 59 and known around here for his wild 
puff of white hair, dreamed up the church as a way to test the 
state's new, much-debated law: If the law protects religious 
practices, he figured, how could it not also permit marijuana use - 
which remains illegal here - as part of a broader spiritual philosophy?

"We will celebrate life's great adventures," Mr. Levin said before 
the service, as clumps of uniformed police officers began gathering 
outside the newly renovated church, front and back. "This is not just 
smoking pot and getting high. It's about the birth of a new religion. 
I'm a smile harvester."

Earlier this year, Indiana's Republican-held legislature approved a 
Religious Freedom Restoration Act aimed at preventing government from 
infringing on religious practices. Critics said the measure was 
anti-gay and aimed at allowing discrimination against gay men and 
lesbians in the name of religion. Facing the threat of boycotts and 
fierce objections from business leaders, state officials swiftly 
added a provision explicitly blocking the measure from trumping local 
ordinances that bar discrimination over sexual orientation.

Mr. Levin, who has been a carpenter, a promotions and marketing 
strategist, and a Libertarian candidate for political office, had few 
kind words for the lawmakers who wrote the state's law in the first 
place. He called them "clowns" who "polluted and embarrassed" his 
state. But if Indiana was going to have such a law, he said, why not 
test its limits and press for his long-held goal, permission to use cannabis?

State leaders, including the office of Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican 
who supported the religious exceptions law, did not respond to 
requests for comment on the church. And some legal experts said Mr. 
Levin may have trouble proving that the use of marijuana is truly 
tied to religious expression. But Mr. Levin seemed untroubled.

"This is an honest-to-God religion," he said. "Other religions have 
sins and guilt. We're going to have a really big love-in."

Near the church, which Mr. Levin said he bought only weeks ago, some 
neighbors posted yellow "Caution" tape around their yards to keep 
people away. A group from a nearby church marched outside with signs 
in protest.

"What's next?" Shari Logan, 46, said. "The church of crack? The 
church of heroin? It's a mockery to Christians, to God."

Sarah Taylor, 50 - who watched from her front yard as two food trucks 
parked outside the church and people in tie-dye gathered - shook her 
head and drank her coffee. "They're using religion as a way to 
legalize their habit," she said. "If it stands, it's going to be in 
your backyard, in your backyard, in all the backyards."

By Wednesday, though, law enforcement authorities here had made it 
abundantly clear that they viewed the laws on marijuana as unchanged. 
Lt. Richard Riddle of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police declined 
to say exactly how many officers were at the church, but there were 
officers outside, posted on nearby corners, behind the church, and 
riding in pairs on bicycles. And officials announced late last week 
that anyone smoking marijuana at the First Church of Cannabis's first 
service could expect criminal charges. Even observers might be 
charged, the officials warned, with "visiting a common nuisance."

So, in the portion of the service when Mr. Levin had planned to pull 
marijuana from a wooden box and begin smoking it, he did not. 
Instead, he lit a thick cigar. Some people lit ordinary cigarettes. 
The legal fight over the religious law needed to be fought in civil 
court, he said, not in criminal court. The church's legal advisers, 
he said, were working on the next steps for getting the legal test 
they want. "There was a little bit of intimidation about our 
religious beliefs," Mr. Levin told the crowded church.

What was left to do, then?

The rest of the service was part dance party, part comedy routine and 
part heartfelt, personal testimony from those in attendance about the 
medical use of marijuana. Mr. Levin ordered those assembled to rise 
and say, "I love you," five times while looking in different 
directions. He had the crowd repeat a "Deity Dozen" phrases to live 
by, including "Do not be a troll on the Internet" and "Grow food." 
The police said no arrests were made, and Police Chief Rick Hite 
described the events as civil and peaceful.

"Enjoy the fellowship," Mr. Levin called out as he took a drag on his 
cigar, then started to dance.
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