Sunday, March 12, 2006

Church seeks probe of peyote prosecutions

Salt Lake Tribune

Utah County: Members claim officials unduly burdened the free practice of religion.

PROVO - Less than two weeks after two of its co-founders agreed to stop using and distributing peyote in exchange for the dismissal of federal charges against them, their Oklevueha Earthwalks Native American Church called for a probe into the role of the Utah County Attorney's Office in the prosecution of the pair.
David Lee Hamblin, a spokesman for the Benjamin-based church, contended Monday that the county attorney's office violated federal acts that bar the government from passing laws that unduly burden the free exercise of religion, first by pressing state charges against Spanish Fork residents James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney and his wife, Linda "Bright Hawk" Mooney, and then by assisting federal authorities in their case.
"Now that the charges are dropped, we're free to pursue the truth and the truth isn't that pretty," Hamblin said at a news conference outside the Utah County Administration Building, where he delivered the written request for a probe. He was joined by James Mooney and a half-dozen church members.
Hamblin said the county attorney's office continued to insist Mooney, a medicine man, was fraudulently claiming American Indian heritage even though he has proof that his genetic ancestry is 35 percent Native American.
Peter Stirba, a lawyer for the Utah County Attorney's Office, called the allegations "patently frivolous" and pointed out that three lawsuits filed by Mooney against prosecutors already have been thrown out by state and federal judges.
The Mooneys contend that all members of the Native American church have a right to use peyote. But federal authorities say only members of federally recognized tribes are eligible to use the hallucinogen as part of their religion.
In 2000, police raided the Oklevueha Earthwalks church and seized 12,000 peyote buttons. James, 62, and Linda,
51, were charged in 4th District Court with a dozen first-degree felony counts.
After prosecutors refused to drop the charges, the two appealed to the Utah Supreme Court. The justices ruled unanimously in 2004 that the Mooneys and other church members, regardless of race, legally can use peyote under a federal exemption passed in 1970 that is incorporated into Utah law.
However, the U.S. Attorney's Office said the Mooneys and the non-Indian members of their church still were prohibited under federal law from possessing or using peyote. The couple and Nicholas Stark, a medicine man from Ogden, were named last year in peyote-related charges.
Stark earlier pleaded guilty to possession of coca leaves and is awaiting sentencing. Then, on Feb. 22, the Mooneys entered into a plea deal that ended the case against them.
The plea agreement was finalized the day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the government cannot bar a New Mexico congregation from using a hallucinogenic tea during religious rituals, but the U.S. Attorney's Office said the issues considered in that matter do not affect peyote cases.
Kris Leonard, an assistant Utah attorney general, said the case has no effect on the Mooneys because they no longer are being prosecuted by the state. Leonard said it was based on the Religious Freedom Reformation Act, a federal law that has no application to the state.


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