Pubdate: Tue, 03 Apr 2018
Source: Providence Journal, The (RI)
Copyright: 2018 The Providence Journal Company
Author: Rebecca Ellis


PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Anne Armstrong, 58, knows exactly how many joints
she has smoked at Providence's Roger Williams National Memorial --
153, all rolled with "kosher" marijuana harvested in the backyard of
her West Greenwich home.

As "deaconess" to The Healing Church, a cannabis-centered Catholic
sect that boasts about a dozen members, Armstrong believes smoking in
the park is a religious obligation, the equivalent to a sip of wine at

Anointing members with hashish-infused oil and blowing a shofar so it
billows marijuana smoke are, likewise, ceremonial duties. (It should
be noted that Armstrong refuses to use the word marijuana, which she
calls racist slang. She prefers to refer to the plant as cannabis,
spice, or hemp.)

When Armstrong and the church's "canon," Alan Gordon, 48, conducted
their first publicized service in May 2015, reporters swarmed around
the new sect that dared flaunt its joints so publicly on federal land.
The Journal and WLNE-TV alerted the public of the church's plan to
worship at the memorial and local channels sent film crews to cover
the ceremony. According to news reports from the time, 10 park
officers were stationed at the .008-square-mile site for the event.

When the ceremony finished with a few fines and no arrests, the
coverage of the church faded, as did the park's need for law

But in the three years since the church first lit up on government
property, members have only become more determined to make themselves
a staple of the park's ecosystem, in spite of increased risk. After
police seized 12 pounds of cannabis and 59 marijuana plants from
Armstrong and Gordon's home in July 2016, each service put the pair in
jeopardy of receiving a bail violation and being sent to jail.
Armstrong's charges were dismissed last month, but Gordon's are still

Nevertheless, approximately once a week -- Saturday at 4:20 p.m. is
their preferred day and time -- Armstrong and Gordon arrive at the
park, often with a congregation member or two in tow. The duo
alternates between scripture and speeches, book-ending each service by
taking a hit from a joint and releasing the smoke through their
respective shofars.

Though the state has decriminalized marijuana possession of under an
ounce, the park is federal property, meaning church members flout the
Controlled Substance Act with each service. But members say their
religion requires them to smoke near the park's historical well, a
"sacred spot" they believe is prophesied in the Bible's Book of
Revelation as the place where the Tree of Life will "be given back to

Armstrong equates the church's park pilgrimages to Jews praying at the
Western Wall or Muslims traveling to Mecca.

 From day to day, it is the park's rangers who keep an eye on the
memorial. However, the rangers have no law enforcement powers, which
is why they "don't step in" when The Healing Church conducts its 
services, according to John McNiff, one of the rangers employed at the 

Instead, Meghan Kish, the National Park Service superintendent for the
site, says that, "like any other property owner," the rangers are 
supposed to alert the Providence police if they see illegal activity.

But Armstrong says the Providence police have only come into the park
three times since her first service of note, a number she views as a
victory in her battle for unrestrained religious expression on park
grounds. "We've won," she says.

Toting a handmade "hemp staff," her hair held back by a black and
green, cannabis-patterned kerchief, Armstrong is difficult to miss
entering the park. McNiff says he spots Armstrong and Gordon several
times each month, usually bearing a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe,
the patron saint of Mexico.

As an interpretive ranger, McNiff is responsible for educating the
park's visitors on the importance of Roger Williams, Rhode Island's
founder. But if he or another ranger notices The Healing Church on
park grounds, he says they will go outside "to keep an eye on things."

McNiff says he doesn't know if cannabis is always present at the
services. "It's not like they -- well, they do put up banners -- but
it's not like they literally advertise that this is what we're doing,"
he says.

Armstrong insists the church is "not sneaky." Almost every service 
involves shofars trumpeting cannabis smoke -- though, if children are 
present, the church will stick to using "holy anointing oil" infused 
with cinnamon, cardamom and, of course, cannabis.

The Healing Church believes it has a right to host services in the
park on First Amendment grounds and therefore prefers that services be
as by-the-book as possible. When the church wants to host a larger
ceremony, it sends a request to the Park Service for a First Amendment
Permit, which allows groups of 25 or more to gather on federal land.
The Park Service has accepted all of the church's requests to hold a
service -- though, Kish notes, there has never actually been a
ceremony with 25 people in attendance.

Each permit comes with a cover letter instructing the applicant to
follow all federal laws.

After Armstrong was granted a permit for her most recent service, on
Nov. 4, she wrote an email to the permit coordinator saying that the
church's practices include anointing members with a recipe containing
cannabis extract. Because she wasn't ticketed at the event, Armstrong
concluded that "federal policy has finally changed."

A YouTube video uploaded from the night, gleefully titled "Feds Allow
Cannabis on Baby, at Park Anointing Ceremony," purports to show two
park rangers watching Armstrong "anoint" a baby with cannabis, though
the quality of the video makes that impossible to verify. At the end
of the video, the words "We Won!" flash in bold green letters.

Church members aren't always as direct with the park's authorities.
Members sometimes sit in a car and fill their lungs with smoke before
running down to the well to release the vapor. But Armstrong says any
furtiveness is solely "out of deference" to the rangers, whose roles
as park arbiters have made them unwitting bystanders in the Church's
First Amendment battle -- an uneasy contrast with their official role
of instructing visitors on the park's message of religious tolerance.

Employed at the park for more than 20 years, McNiff is well-versed in
the memorial's founding message.

Though The Healing Church's reverence of cannabis makes it an easy
target for skepticism, legal experts say the courts have yet to
provide a singular definition for religion, making it difficult to say
that one belief system is more deserving of First Amendment
protections than another.

"You would think after 220 years of having a First Amendment that
gives protection to religion, we'd have some idea of what religion is,
but that turns out not to be the case," says Jared Goldstein,
professor of law at Roger Williams University School of Law. Instead,
most courts look to measure the sincerity of a person's belief when
deciding if their right to religious freedom has been violated. "All
that we can decide legally is whether people sincerely believe the
things that they say, but they can't decide whether a religious claim
is true."

Kara Hoopis Manosh, the attorney who represented Armstrong against the
state's charges, says it's obvious that members of the congregation
believe what they preach.

"This is genuine, sincere, longstanding, comprehensive belief that
cannabis is the Tree of Life as referenced in the Bible," she says.
"They've done extensive writings and teachings on that topic."

But, Goldstein says, sect members can still be prosecuted for
ceremonially smoking marijuana if the government can show it has a
"compelling interest in enforcing its drug laws."

When it comes to balancing religious rights with legal obligations,
McNiff says, "there is no easy answer." However, "if there's some
violation of federal law, then things have to be done."

But after nearly three years of conducting ceremonies on federal land,
Gordon says there's a "sense that they're not going to stop us."

Which, to members of The Healing Church, is just as well. When asked
if she would ever consider holding services elsewhere, Armstrong's
answer never varies.

"We can't have those services somewhere else -- no getting around it,"
she says. "That's our religion."

- --------------------------------------------------------------------

- --Rebecca Ellis, a senior at Brown University, majors in urban studies
and English.
- ---
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