Israel Zion Coptic Church Raises Defense of the Establishment Clause in Wisconsin Marijuana Cultivation Case
Arrested for growing 30 marijuana plants in his study, Brother Michael Matteson, a priest of the Israel Zion Coptic Church, has testified that his faith views marijuana as a sacrament that facilitates communion with God (Lyn Hanson Jerde, "Marijuana Use Draws Fire In Court: Prarie du Chien Man Defends Drug Use," DuBuque Telegraph Herald, 5/7/93, 1A; Lyn Hanson Jerde, "Coptic Testifies About His Faith," Dubuque Telegraph Herald, 5/7/93, 3A; Terry Burt, "'Holy Herb' Or Illegal Substance? In Court: Coptic Argues For Right To Worship With Marijuana," La Crosse Tribune, 5/7/93, A7).
Matteson lives in a religious community in the remote Star Valley in northern Crawford County, Wisc. The community has attracted media coverage from around the Midwest due to the group's sacramental use of marijuana. Matteson has never tried to hide the marijuana use, and when contacted by the local sheriff, he promised not to proselytize and not to distribute marijuana to anyone. However, he was arrested for marijuana cultivation in March 1992.
At a hearing on the constitutionality of the prosecution, Crawford County Attorney Timothy Baxter agreed that Matteson uses marijuana for religious purposes, but said he opposes dismissing the charges because he thinks that the legislature, not the courts, should decide if there is a religious exception to marijuana prohibition. The Coptics are seeking an exemption similar to that granted the Native American Church for religious use of peyote. Testifying at the hearing about the relative harmfulness of religious practices such as use of marijuana or wine as sacraments, handling poisonous snakes, or abjuring from allopathic medical treatment was John P. Morgan, MD, of the City University of New York School of Medicine. Testifying about the bona fides of the Israel Zion Coptic Church was Rev. Cynthia Mazur whose article about marijuana as a holy sacrament was published in the NOTRE DAME JOURNAL OF LAW, ETHICS AND SOCIAL POLICY. The costs of flying Dr. Morgan and Rev. Mazur to testify were paid by The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, which also encouraged the taping of the hearing by the Court TV cable network.