Pr Ntr Kmt U.S. Supreme Court ayahuasca case

ayahuasca case

    February 21, 2006 — the United States of America Supreme Court ruled 8-0 (Alito didn’t participate because he didn’t hear the case) that members of the ayahuasca-using União do Vegetal (UDV) church (estimated 130 members in the U.S.) must be allowed to continue using their DMT-containing tea until a final decision is reached in their case against the government.

    In writing the unanimous decision, Chief Justice C.J. Roberts claimed:

next religious freedom topic

text of Supreme Court Decision

Page 1

(Slip Opinion) OCTOBER TERM, 2005 1

Syllabus

    NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is
being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.
The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been
prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.
See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL,
ET AL

. v. O
CENTRO ESPIRITA BENEFICENTE UNIAO DO
VEGETAL
ET AL .

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR
THE TENTH CIRCUIT

No. 04–1084. Argued November 1, 2005—Decided February 21, 2006


Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993
(RFRA) in response to Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of
Ore. v. Smith, 494 U. S. 872, where, in upholding a generally appli-
cable law that burdened the sacramental use of peyote, this Court
held that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause does not re-
quire judges to engage in a case-by-case assessment of the religious
burdens imposed by facially constitutional laws, id., at 883–890.
Among other things, RFRA prohibits the Federal Government from
substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion, “even if the
burden results from a rule of general applicability,” 42 U. S. C.
§2000bb–1(a), except when the Government can “demonstrat[e] that
application of the burden to the person (1) [furthers] a compelling
government interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of further-
ing that . . . interest,” §2000bb–1(b).

    Members of respondent church (UDV) receive communion by drink-
ing hoasca, a tea brewed from plants unique to the Amazon Rainfor-
est that contains DMT, a hallucinogen regulated under Schedule I of
the Controlled Substances Act, see 21 U. S. C. §812(c), Schedule I(c).
After U. S. Customs inspectors seized a hoasca shipment to the
American UDV and threatened prosecution, the UDV filed this suit
for declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging, inter alia, that apply-
ing the Controlled Substances Act to the UDV’s sacramental hoasca
use violates RFRA. At a hearing on the UDV’s preliminary injunc-
tion motion, the Government conceded that the challenged applica-
tion would substantially burden a sincere exercise of religion, but ar-
gued that this burden did not violate RFRA because applying the


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Syllabus

    Controlled Substances Act was the least restrictive means of advanc-
ing three compelling governmental interests: protecting UDV mem-
bers’ health and safety, preventing the diversion of hoasca from the
church to recreational users, and complying with the 1971 United
Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances. The District Court
granted relief, concluding that, because the parties’ evidence on
health risks and diversion was equally balanced, the Government
had failed to demonstrate a compelling interest justifying the sub-
stantial burden on the UDV. The court also held that the 1971 Con-
vention does not apply to hoasca. The Tenth Circuit affirmed.

Held: The courts below did not err in determining that the Government
failed to demonstrate, at the preliminary injunction stage, a compel-
ling interest in barring the UDV’s sacramental use of hoasca. Pp. 6–
19.

    1. This Court rejects the Government’s argument that evidentiary
equipoise as to potential harm and diversion is an insufficient basis
for a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the Controlled
Substances Act. Given that the Government conceded the UDV’s
prima facie RFRA case in the District Court and that the evidence
found to be in equipoise related to an affirmative defense as to which
the Government bore the burden of proof, the UDV effectively dem-
onstrated a likelihood of success on the merits. The Government’s
argument that, although it would bear the burden of demonstrating a
compelling interest at trial on the merits, the UDV should have borne
the burden of disproving such interests at the preliminary injunction
hearing is foreclosed by Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union,
542 U. S. 656, 666. There, in affirming the grant of a preliminary in-
junction against the Government, this Court reasoned that the bur-
dens with respect to the compelling interest test at the preliminary
injunction stage track the burdens at trial. The Government’s at-
tempt to limit the Ashcroft rule to content-based restrictions on
speech is unavailing. The fact that Ashcroft involved such a restric-
tion in no way affected the Court’s assessment of the consequences of
having the burden at trial for preliminary injunction purposes. Con-
gress’ express decision to legislate the compelling interest test indi-
cates that RFRA challenges should be adjudicated in the same way
as the test’s constitutionally mandated applications, including at the
preliminary injunction stage. Pp. 6–8.

    2. Also rejected is the Government’s central submission that, be-
cause it has a compelling interest in the uniform application of the
Controlled Substances Act, no exception to the DMT ban can be made
to accommodate the UDV. The Government argues, inter alia, that
the Act’s description of Schedule I substances as having “a high po-
tential for abuse,” “no currently accepted medical use,” and “a lack of


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Syllabus

accepted safety for use . . . under medical supervision,” 21 U. S. C.
§812(b)(1), by itself precludes any consideration of individualized ex-
ceptions, and that the Act’s “closed” regulatory system, which prohib-
its all use of controlled substances except as the Act itself authorizes,
see Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U. S. ___, ___, cannot function properly if
subjected to judicial exemptions. Pp. 8–16.

    (a) RFRA and its strict scrutiny test contemplate an inquiry
more focused than the Government’s categorical approach. RFRA re-
quires the Government to demonstrate that the compelling interest
test is satisfied through application of the challenged law “to the per-
son”—the particular claimant whose sincere exercise of religion is be-
ing substantially burdened. 42 U. S. C. §2000bb–1(b). Section
2000bb(b)(1) expressly adopted the compelling interest test of Sher-
bert v. Verner, 374 U. S. 398, and Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U. S. 205.
There, the Court looked beyond broadly formulated interests justify-
ing the general applicability of government mandates, scrutinized the
asserted harms, and granted specific exemptions to particular reli-
gious claimants. Id., at 213, 221, 236; Sherbert, supra, at 410. Out-
side the Free Exercise area as well, the Court has noted that
“[c]ontext matters” in applying the compelling interest test, Grutter v.
Bollinger, 539 U. S. 306, 327, and has emphasized that strict scrutiny’s
fundamental purpose is to take “relevant differences” into account,
Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Peña, 515 U. S. 200, 228. Pp. 9–10.

    (b) Under RFRA’s more focused inquiry, the Government’s mere
invocation of the general characteristics of Schedule I substances
cannot carry the day. Although Schedule I substances such as DMT
are exceptionally dangerous, see, e.g., Touby v. United States, 500
U. S. 160, 162, there is no indication that Congress, in classifying
DMT, considered the harms posed by the particular use at issue.
That question was litigated below. Before the District Court found
that the Government had not carried its burden of showing a compel-
ling interest in preventing such harm, the court noted that it could
not ignore the congressional classification and findings. But Con-
gress’ determination that DMT should be listed under Schedule I
simply does not provide a categorical answer that relieves the Gov-
ernment of the obligation to shoulder its RFRA burden. The Con-
trolled Substances Act’s authorization to the Attorney General to
“waive the requirement for registration of certain manufacturers, dis-
tributors, or dispensers if he finds it consistent with the public health
and safety,” 21 U. S. C. §822(d), reinforces that Congress’ findings
with respect to Schedule I substances should not carry the determi-
native weight, for RFRA purposes, that the Government would as-
cribe to them. Indeed, despite the fact that everything the Govern-
ment says about the DMT in hoasca applies in equal measure to the


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Syllabus

mescaline in peyote, another Schedule I substance, both the Execu-
tive and Congress have decreed an exception from the Controlled
Substances Act for Native American religious use of peyote, see 21
CFR §1307.31; 42 U. S. C. §1996a(b)(1). If such use is permitted in
the face of the general congressional findings for hundreds of thou-
sands of Native Americans practicing their faith, those same findings
alone cannot preclude consideration of a similar exception for the 130
or so American members of the UDV who want to practice theirs.
See Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U. S. 520, 547.
The Government’s argument that the existence of a congressional ex-
emption for peyote does not indicate that the Controlled Substances Act
is amenable to judicially crafted exceptions fails because RFRA plainly
contemplates court-recognized exceptions, see §2000bb–1(c). Pp. 11–13.

    (c) The peyote exception also fatally undermines the Govern-
ment’s broader contention that the Controlled Substances Act estab-
lishes a closed regulatory system that admits of no exceptions under
RFRA. The peyote exception has been in place since the Controlled
Substances Act’s outset, and there is no evidence that it has undercut
the Government’s ability to enforce the ban on peyote use by non-
Indians. The Government’s reliance on pre-Smith cases asserting a
need for uniformity in rejecting claims for religious exemptions under
the Free Exercise Clause is unavailing. Those cases did not embrace
the notion that a general interest in uniformity justified a substantial
burden on religious exercise, but instead scrutinized the asserted
need and explained why the denied exemptions could not be accom-
modated. See, e.g., United States v. Lee, 455 U. S. 252, 258, 260.
They show that the Government can demonstrate a compelling inter-
est in uniform application of a particular program by offering evi-
dence that granting the requested religious accommodations would
seriously compromise its ability to administer the program. Here the
Government’s uniformity argument rests not so much on the particu-
lar statutory program at issue as on slippery slope concerns that
could be invoked in response to any RFRA claim for an exception to a
generally applicable law, i.e., “if I make an exception for you, I’ll have
to make one for everybody, so no exceptions.” But RFRA operates by
mandating consideration, under the compelling interest test, of ex-
ceptions to “rule[s] of general applicability.” §2000bb–1(a). Congress’
determination that the legislated test is “workable . . . for striking
sensible balances between religious liberty and competing prior gov-
ernmental interests,” §200bb(a)(5), finds support in Sherbert, supra,
at 407, and Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U. S. ___, ___. While there may
be instances where a need for uniformity precludes the recognition of
exceptions to generally applicable laws under RFRA, it would be sur-
prising to find that this was such a case, given the longstanding pe-


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Syllabus

yote exemption and the fact that the very reason Congress enacted
RFRA was to respond to a decision denying a claimed right to sacra-
mental use of a controlled substance. The Government has not
shown that granting the UDV an exemption would cause the kind of
administrative harm recognized as a compelling interest in, e.g., Lee.
It cannot now compensate for its failure to convince the District
Court as to its health or diversion concerns with the bold argument
that there can be no RFRA exceptions at all to the Controlled Sub-
stances Act. Pp. 13–16.

    3. The Government argues unpersuasively that it has a compelling
interest in complying with the 1971 U. N. Convention. While this
Court does not agree with the District Court that the Convention
does not cover hoasca, that does not automatically mean that the
Government has demonstrated a compelling interest in applying the
Controlled Substances Act, which implements the Convention, to the
UDV’s sacramental use. At this stage, it suffices that the Govern-
ment did not submit any evidence addressing the international con-
sequences of granting the UDV an exemption, but simply relied on
two affidavits by State Department officials attesting to the general
(and undoubted) importance of honoring international obligations
and maintaining the United States’ leadership in the international
war on drugs. Under RFRA, invocation of such general interests,
standing alone, is not enough. Pp. 16–18.

389 F. 3d 973, affirmed and remanded.

    R OBERTS , C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other
Members joined, except A
LITO , J., who took no part in the consideration
or decision of the case.


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Opinion of the Court

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the
preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to
notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Wash-
ington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order
that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

_________________

No. 04–1084

_________________

ALBERTO R. GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL,

ET AL ., PETITIONERS v. O CENTRO ESPIRITA

BENEFICENTE UNIAO DO VEGETAL ET AL .

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF
APPEALS FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT

[February 21, 2006]

    C HIEF J USTICE R OBERTS delivered the opinion of the
Court.

    A religious sect with origins in the Amazon Rainforest
receives communion by drinking a sacramental tea,
brewed from plants unique to the region, that contains a
hallucinogen regulated under the Controlled Substances
Act by the Federal Government. The Government con-
cedes that this practice is a sincere exercise of religion, but
nonetheless sought to prohibit the small American branch
of the sect from engaging in the practice, on the ground
that the Controlled Substances Act bars all use of the
hallucinogen. The sect sued to block enforcement against
it of the ban on the sacramental tea, and moved for a
preliminary injunction.

    It relied on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of
1993, which prohibits the Federal Government from sub-
stantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion, unless
the Government “demonstrates that application of the
burden to the person” represents the least restrictive
means of advancing a compelling interest. 42 U. S. C.


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Opinion of the Court

§2000bb–1(b). The District Court granted the preliminary
injunction, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. We
granted the Government’s petition for certiorari. Before
this Court, the Government’s central submission is that it
has a compelling interest in the uniform application of the
Controlled Substances Act, such that no exception to the
ban on use of the hallucinogen can be made to accommo-
date the sect’s sincere religious practice. We conclude that
the Government has not carried the burden expressly
placed on it by Congress in the Religious Freedom
Restoration Act, and affirm the grant of the preliminary
injunction.

I

    In Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore.
v. Smith, 494 U. S. 872 (1990), this Court held that the
Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment does not
prohibit governments from burdening religious practices
through generally applicable laws. In Smith, we rejected
a challenge to an Oregon statute that denied unemploy-
ment benefits to drug users, including Native Americans
engaged in the sacramental use of peyote. Id., at 890. In
so doing, we rejected the interpretation of the Free Exer-
cise Clause announced in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U. S. 398
(1963), and, in accord with earlier cases, see Smith, 494
U. S., at 879–880, 884–885, held that the Constitution
does not require judges to engage in a case-by-case as-
sessment of the religious burdens imposed by facially
constitutional laws. Id., at 883–890.

    Congress responded by enacting the Religious Freedom
Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 107 Stat. 1488, as
amended, 42 U. S. C. §2000bb et seq., which adopts a
statutory rule comparable to the constitutional rule re-
jected in Smith. Under RFRA, the Federal Government
may not, as a statutory matter, substantially burden a
person’s exercise of religion, “even if the burden results


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Opinion of the Court

from a rule of general applicability.” §2000bb–1(a). The
only exception recognized by the statute requires the
Government to satisfy the compelling interest test—to
“demonstrat[e] that application of the burden to the per-
son—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling government
interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of further-
ing that compelling governmental interest.” §2000bb–1(b).
A person whose religious practices are burdened in viola-
tion of RFRA “may assert that violation as a claim or
defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate
relief.” §2000bb–1(c).
1

    The Controlled Substances Act, 84 Stat. 1242, as
amended, 21 U. S. C. §801 et seq. (2000 ed. and Supp. I),
regulates the importation, manufacture, distribution, and
use of psychotropic substances. The Act classifies sub-
stances into five schedules based on their potential for
abuse, the extent to which they have an accepted medical
use, and their safety. See §812(b) (2000 ed.). Substances
listed in Schedule I of the Act are subject to the most
comprehensive restrictions, including an outright ban on
all importation and use, except pursuant to strictly regu-
lated research projects. See §§823, 960(a)(1). The Act
authorizes the imposition of a criminal sentence for simple
possession of Schedule I substances, see §844(a), and
mandates the imposition of a criminal sentence for posses-
sion “with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense”
such substances, see §§841(a), (b).

    O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal (UDV)
is a Christian Spiritist sect based in Brazil, with an
American branch of approximately 130 individuals. Cen-
tral to the UDV’s faith is receiving communion through

——————

    1 As originally enacted, RFRA applied to States as well as the Federal
Government. In City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U. S. 507 (1997), we held
the application to States to be beyond Congress’ legislative authority
under §5 of the 14th Amendment.


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UNIAO DO VEGETAL

Opinion of the Court

hoasca (pronounced “wass-ca”), a sacramental tea made
from two plants unique to the Amazon region. One of the
plants, psychotria viridis, contains dimethyltryptamine
(DMT), a hallucinogen whose effects are enhanced by
alkaloids from the other plant, banisteriopsis caapi. DMT,
as well as “any material, compound, mixture, or prepara-
tion, which contains any quantity of [DMT],” is listed in
Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. §812(c),
Schedule I(c).

    In 1999, United States Customs inspectors intercepted a
shipment to the American UDV containing three drums of
hoasca. A subsequent investigation revealed that the
UDV had received 14 prior shipments of hoasca. The
inspectors seized the intercepted shipment and threatened
the UDV with prosecution.

    The UDV filed suit against the Attorney General and
other federal law enforcement officials, seeking declara-
tory and injunctive relief. The complaint alleged, inter
alia, that applying the Controlled Substances Act to the
UDV’s sacramental use of hoasca violates RFRA. Prior to
trial, the UDV moved for a preliminary injunction, so that
it could continue to practice its faith pending trial on the
merits.

    At a hearing on the preliminary injunction, the Gov-
ernment conceded that the challenged application of the
Controlled Substances Act would substantially burden a
sincere exercise of religion by the UDV. See O Centro
Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal v. Ashcroft, 282
F. Supp. 2d 1236, 1252 (NM 2002). The Government
argued, however, that this burden did not violate RFRA,
because applying the Controlled Substances Act in this
case was the least restrictive means of advancing three
compelling governmental interests: protecting the health
and safety of UDV members, preventing the diversion of
hoasca from the church to recreational users, and comply-
ing with the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psycho-


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Opinion of the Court

tropic Substances, a treaty signed by the United States
and implemented by the Act. Feb. 21, 1971, [1979–1980],
32 U. S. T. 543, T. I. A. S. No. 9725. See 282 F. Supp. 2d,
at 1252–1253.

    The District Court heard evidence from both parties on
the health risks of hoasca and the potential for diversion
from the church. The Government presented evidence to
the effect that use of hoasca, or DMT more generally, can
cause psychotic reactions, cardiac irregularities, and
adverse drug interactions. The UDV countered by citing
studies documenting the safety of its sacramental use of
hoasca and presenting evidence that minimized the likeli-
hood of the health risks raised by the Government. With
respect to diversion, the Government pointed to a general
rise in the illicit use of hallucinogens, and cited interest in
the illegal use of DMT and hoasca in particular; the UDV
emphasized the thinness of any market for hoasca, the
relatively small amounts of the substance imported by the
church, and the absence of any diversion problem in the
past.

    The District Court concluded that the evidence on
health risks was “in equipoise,” and similarly that the
evidence on diversion was “virtually balanced.” Id., at
1262, 1266. In the face of such an even showing, the court
reasoned that the Government had failed to demonstrate a
compelling interest justifying what it acknowledged was a
substantial burden on the UDV’s sincere religious exer-
cise. Id., at 1255. The court also rejected the asserted
interest in complying with the 1971 Convention on Psy-
chotropic Substances, holding that the Convention does
not apply to hoasca. Id., at 1266–1269.

    The court entered a preliminary injunction prohibiting
the Government from enforcing the Controlled Substances
Act with respect to the UDV’s importation and use of
hoasca. The injunction requires the church to import the
tea pursuant to federal permits, to restrict control over the


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tea to persons of church authority, and to warn particu-
larly susceptible UDV members of the dangers of hoasca.
See Preliminary Injunction ¶¶2, 5–12, 32–33, App. F to
App. to Pet. for Cert. 249a, 250a–252a, 258a–259a. The
injunction also provides that “if [the Government] be-
lieve[s] that evidence exists that hoasca has negatively
affected the health of UDV members,” or “that a shipment
of hoasca contain[s] particularly dangerous levels of DMT,
[the Government] may apply to the Court for an expedited
determination of whether the evidence warrants suspen-
sion or revocation of [the UDV’s authority to use hoasca].”
Id., at 257a, ¶29.

    The Government appealed the preliminary injunction
and a panel of the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
affirmed, O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal
v. Ashcroft, 342 F. 3d 1170 (2003), as did a majority of the
Circuit sitting en banc, 389 F. 3d 973 (2004). We granted
certiorari. 544 U. S. 973 (2005).

II

    Although its briefs contain some discussion of the poten-
tial for harm and diversion from the UDV’s use of hoasca,
the Government does not challenge the District Court’s
factual findings or its conclusion that the evidence submit-
ted on these issues was evenly balanced. Instead, the
Government maintains that such evidentiary equipoise is
an insufficient basis for issuing a preliminary injunction
against enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act. We
review the District Court’s legal rulings de novo and its
ultimate decision to issue the preliminary injunction for
abuse of discretion. See McCreary County v. American
Civil Liberties Union, 545 U. S. ___ , ___ (2005) (slip op., at
19).

    The Government begins by invoking the well-
established principle that the party seeking pretrial relief
bears the burden of demonstrating a likelihood of success


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Opinion of the Court

on the merits. See, e.g., Mazurek v. Armstrong, 520 U. S.
968, 972 (1997) (per curiam); Doran v. Salem Inn, Inc., 422
U. S. 922, 931 (1975). The Government argues that the
District Court lost sight of this principle in issuing the
injunction based on a mere tie in the evidentiary record.

    A majority of the en banc Court of Appeals rejected this
argument, and so do we. Before the District Court, the
Government conceded the UDV’s prima facie case under
RFRA. See 282 F. Supp. 2d, at 1252 (application of the
Controlled Substances Act would (1) substantially burden
(2) a sincere (3) religious exercise). The evidence the
District Court found to be in equipoise related to two of
the compelling interests asserted by the Government,
which formed part of the Government’s affirmative de-
fense. See 42 U. S. C. §2000bb–1(b) (“Government may
substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if
it demonstrates that application of the burden to the per-
son—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling government
interest . . .” (emphasis added)); §2000bb–2(3) (“[T]he term
‘demonstrates’ means meets the burdens of going forward
with the evidence and of persuasion”). Accordingly, the
UDV effectively demonstrated that its sincere exercise of
religion was substantially burdened, and the Government
failed to demonstrate that the application of the burden to
the UDV would, more likely than not, be justified by the
asserted compelling interests. See 389 F. 3d, at 1009
(Seymour, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part)
(“[T]he balance is between actual irreparable harm to [the]
plaintiff and potential harm to the government which
does not even rise to the level of a preponderance of the
evidence”).

    The Government argues that, although it would bear
the burden of demonstrating a compelling interest as part
of its affirmative defense at trial on the merits, the UDV
should have borne the burden of disproving the asserted
compelling interests at the hearing on the preliminary


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UNIAO DO VEGETAL

Opinion of the Court

injunction. This argument is foreclosed by our recent
decision in Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union, 542
U. S. 656 (2004). In Ashcroft, we affirmed the grant of a
preliminary injunction in a case where the Government
had failed to show a likelihood of success under the com-
pelling interest test. We reasoned that “[a]s the Govern-
ment bears the burden of proof on the ultimate question of
[the challenged Act’s] constitutionality, respondents [the
movants] must be deemed likely to prevail unless the
Government has shown that respondents’ proposed less
restrictive alternatives are less effective than [enforcing
the Act].” Id., at 666. That logic extends to this case; here
the Government failed on the first prong of the compelling
interest test, and did not reach the least restrictive means
prong, but that can make no difference. The point re-
mains that the burdens at the preliminary injunction
stage track the burdens at trial.

    The Government attempts to limit the rule announced
in Ashcroft to content-based restrictions on speech, but the
distinction is unavailing. The fact that Ashcroft involved
such a restriction was the reason the Government had the
burden of proof at trial under the First Amendment, see
id., at 665, but in no way affected the Court’s assessment
of the consequences of having that burden for purposes of
the preliminary injunction. Here the burden is placed
squarely on the Government by RFRA rather than the
First Amendment, see 42 U. S. C. §§2000bb–1(b), 2000bb–
2(3), but the consequences are the same. Congress’ ex-
press decision to legislate the compelling interest test
indicates that RFRA challenges should be adjudicated in
the same manner as constitutionally mandated applica-
tions of the test, including at the preliminary injunction
stage.

III

    The Government’s second line of argument rests on the


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Opinion of the Court

Controlled Substances Act itself. The Government con-
tends that the Act’s description of Schedule I substances
as having “a high potential for abuse,” “no currently ac-
cepted medical use in treatment in the United States,” and
“a lack of accepted safety for use . . . under medical super-
vision,” 21 U. S. C. §812(b)(1), by itself precludes any
consideration of individualized exceptions such as that
sought by the UDV. The Government goes on to argue
that the regulatory regime established by the Act—a
“closed” system that prohibits all use of controlled sub-
stances except as authorized by the Act itself, see Gonzales
v. Raich, 545 U. S. ___, ___ (2005) (slip op., at 10)—“cannot
function with its necessary rigor and comprehensiveness if
subjected to judicial exemptions.” Brief for Petitioners 18.
According to the Government, there would be no way to
cabin religious exceptions once recognized, and “the public
will misread” such exceptions as signaling that the sub-
stance at issue is not harmful after all. Id., at 23. Under
the Government’s view, there is no need to assess the
particulars of the UDV’s use or weigh the impact of an
exemption for that specific use, because the Controlled
Substances Act serves a compelling purpose and simply
admits of no exceptions.

A

    RFRA, and the strict scrutiny test it adopted, contem-
plate an inquiry more focused than the Government’s
categorical approach. RFRA requires the Government to
demonstrate that the compelling interest test is satisfied
through application of the challenged law “to the per-
son”—the particular claimant whose sincere exercise of
religion is being substantially burdened. 42 U. S. C.
§2000bb–1(b). RFRA expressly adopted the compelling
interest test “as set forth in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U. S.
398 (1963) and Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U. S. 205 (1972).”
42 U. S. C. §2000bb(b)(1). In each of those cases, this


Page 15

10 GONZALES v. O CENTRO ESPIRITA BENEFICENTE
UNIAO DO VEGETAL

Opinion of the Court

Court looked beyond broadly formulated interests justify-
ing the general applicability of government mandates and
scrutinized the asserted harm of granting specific exemp-
tions to particular religious claimants. In Yoder, for ex-
ample, we permitted an exemption for Amish children
from a compulsory school attendance law. We recognized
that the State had a “paramount” interest in education,
but held that “despite its admitted validity in the general-
ity of cases, we must searchingly examine the interests
that the State seeks to promote . . . and the impediment to
those objectives that would flow from recognizing the
claimed Amish exemption.” 406 U. S., at 213, 221 (empha-
sis added). The Court explained that the State needed “to
show with more particularity how its admittedly strong
interest . . . would be adversely affected by granting an
exemption to the Amish.” Id., at 236 (emphasis added).

    In Sherbert, the Court upheld a particular claim to a
religious exemption from a state law denying unemploy-
ment benefits to those who would not work on Saturdays,
but explained that it was not announcing a constitutional
right to unemployment benefits for “all persons whose
religious convictions are the cause of their unemploy-
ment.” 374 U. S., at 410 (emphasis added). The Court
distinguished the case “in which an employee’s religious
convictions serve to make him a nonproductive member of
society.” Ibid.; see also Smith, 494 U. S., at 899
(O’Connor, J., concurring in judgment) (strict scrutiny “at
least requires a case-by-case determination of the ques-
tion, sensitive to the facts of each particular claim”).
Outside the Free Exercise area as well, the Court has
noted that “[c]ontext matters” in applying the compelling
interest test, Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U. S. 306, 327 (2003),
and has emphasized that “strict scrutiny does take ‘relevant
differences’ into account—indeed, that is its fundamental
purpose,” Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Peña, 515 U. S. 200,
228 (1995).


Page 16

Cite as: 546 U. S. ____ (2006) 11

Opinion of the Court

B

    Under the more focused inquiry required by RFRA and
the compelling interest test, the Government’s mere invo-
cation of the general characteristics of Schedule I sub-
stances, as set forth in the Controlled Substances Act,
cannot carry the day. It is true, of course, that Schedule I
substances such as DMT are exceptionally dangerous.
See, e.g., Touby v. United States, 500 U. S. 160, 162 (1991).
Nevertheless, there is no indication that Congress, in classi-
fying DMT, considered the harms posed by the particular
use at issue here—the circumscribed, sacramental use of
hoasca by the UDV. The question of the harms from the
sacramental use of hoasca by the UDV was litigated be-
low. Before the District Court found that the Government
had not carried its burden of showing a compelling inter-
est in preventing such harms, the court noted that it could
not “ignore that the legislative branch of the government
elected to place materials containing DMT on Schedule I
of the [Act], reflecting findings that substances containing
DMT have ‘a high potential for abuse,’ and ‘no currently
accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,’
and that ‘[t]here is a lack of accepted safety for use of
[DMT] under medical supervision.’ ” 282 F. Supp. 2d, at
1254. But Congress’ determination that DMT should be
listed under Schedule I simply does not provide a categori-
cal answer that relieves the Government of the obligation
to shoulder its burden under RFRA.

    This conclusion is reinforced by the Controlled Sub-
stances Act itself. The Act contains a provision authoriz-
ing the Attorney General to “waive the requirement for
registration of certain manufacturers, distributors, or
dispensers if he finds it consistent with the public health
and safety.” 21 U. S. C. §822(d). The fact that the Act
itself contemplates that exempting certain people from its
requirements would be “consistent with the public health
and safety” indicates that congressional findings with


Page 17

12 GONZALES v. O CENTRO ESPIRITA BENEFICENTE
UNIAO DO VEGETAL

Opinion of the Court

respect to Schedule I substances should not carry the
determinative weight, for RFRA purposes, that the Gov-
ernment would ascribe to them.

    And in fact an exception has been made to the Schedule
I ban for religious use. For the past 35 years, there has
been a regulatory exemption for use of peyote—a Schedule
I substance—by the Native American Church. See 21
CFR §1307.31 (2005). In 1994, Congress extended that
exemption to all members of every recognized Indian
Tribe. See 42 U. S. C. §1996a(b)(1). Everything the Gov-
ernment says about the DMT in hoasca—that, as a Sched-
ule I substance, Congress has determined that it “has a
high potential for abuse,” “has no currently accepted medi-
cal use,” and has “a lack of accepted safety for use . . .
under medical supervision,” 21 U. S. C. §812(b)(1)—
applies in equal measure to the mescaline in peyote, yet
both the Executive and Congress itself have decreed an
exception from the Controlled Substances Act for Native
American religious use of peyote. If such use is permitted
in the face of the congressional findings in §812(b)(1) for
hundreds of thousands of Native Americans practicing
their faith, it is difficult to see how those same findings
alone can preclude any consideration of a similar excep-
tion for the 130 or so American members of the UDV who
want to practice theirs. See Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye,
Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U. S. 520, 547 (1993) (“It is established
in our strict scrutiny jurisprudence that ‘a law cannot be
regarded as protecting an interest ‘of the highest order’ . . .
when it leaves appreciable damage to that supposedly
vital interest unprohibited’ ” (quoting Florida Star v.
B. J. F., 491 U. S. 524, 541–542 (1989) (S CALIA , J., concur-
ring in part and concurring in judgment))).

    The Government responds that there is a “unique rela-
tionship” between the United States and the Tribes, Brief
for Petitioners 27; see Morton v. Mancari, 417 U. S. 535
(1974), but never explains what about that “unique” rela-


Page 18

Cite as: 546 U. S. ____ (2006) 13

Opinion of the Court

tionship justifies overriding the same congressional findings
on which the Government relies in resisting any exception
for the UDV’s religious use of hoasca. In other words, if any
Schedule I substance is in fact always highly dangerous in
any amount no matter how used, what about the unique
relationship with the Tribes justifies allowing their use of
peyote? Nothing about the unique political status of the
Tribes makes their members immune from the health risks
the Government asserts accompany any use of a Schedule I
substance, nor insulates the Schedule I substance the Tribes
use in religious exercise from the alleged risk of diversion.

    The Government argues that the existence of a congres-
sional exemption for peyote does not indicate that the Con-
trolled Substances Act is amenable to judicially crafted
exceptions. RFRA, however, plainly contemplates that
courts would recognize exceptions—that is how the law
works. See 42 U. S. C. §2000bb–1(c) (“A person whose
religious exercise has been burdened in violation of this
section may assert that violation as a claim or defense in a
judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against a
government”). Congress’ role in the peyote exemption—and
the Executive’s, see 21 CFR §1307.31 (2005)—confirms that
the findings in the Controlled Substances Act do not pre-
clude exceptions altogether; RFRA makes clear that it is the
obligation of the courts to consider whether exceptions are
required under the test set forth by Congress.

C

    The well-established peyote exception also fatally un-
dermines the Government’s broader contention that the
Controlled Substances Act establishes a closed regulatory
system that admits of no exceptions under RFRA. The
Government argues that the effectiveness of the Con-
trolled Substances Act will be “necessarily . . . undercut” if
the Act is not uniformly applied, without regard to bur-
dens on religious exercise. Brief for Petitioners 18. The


Page 19

14 GONZALES v. O CENTRO ESPIRITA BENEFICENTE
UNIAO DO VEGETAL

Opinion of the Court


peyote exception, however, has been in place since the
outset of the Controlled Substances Act, and there is no
evidence that it has “undercut” the Government’s ability
to enforce the ban on peyote use by non-Indians.

    The Government points to some pre-Smith cases relying
on a need for uniformity in rejecting claims for religious
exemptions under the Free Exercise Clause, see Brief for
Petitioners 16, but those cases strike us as quite different
from the present one. Those cases did not embrace the
notion that a general interest in uniformity justified a
substantial burden on religious exercise; they instead
scrutinized the asserted need and explained why the
denied exemptions could not be accommodated. In United
States v. Lee, 455 U. S. 252 (1982), for example, the Court
rejected a claimed exception to the obligation to pay Social
Security taxes, noting that “mandatory participation is
indispensable to the fiscal vitality of the social security
system” and that the “tax system could not function if de-
nominations were allowed to challenge the tax system
because tax payments were spent in a manner that violates
their religious belief.” Id., at 258, 260. See also Hernandez
v. Commissioner, 490 U. S. 680, 700 (1989) (same). In
Braunfeld v. Brown, 366 U. S. 599 (1961) (plurality opinion),
the Court denied a claimed exception to Sunday closing
laws, in part because allowing such exceptions “might well
provide [the claimants] with an economic advantage over
their competitors who must remain closed on that day.” Id.,
at 608–609. The whole point of a “uniform day of rest for all
workers” would have been defeated by exceptions. See
Sherbert, 374 U. S., at 408 (discussing Braunfeld). These
cases show that the Government can demonstrate a compel-
ling interest in uniform application of a particular program
by offering evidence that granting the requested religious
accommodations would seriously compromise its ability to
administer the program.

    Here the Government’s argument for uniformity is differ-


Page 20

Cite as: 546 U. S. ____ (2006) 15

Opinion of the Court

ent; it rests not so much on the particular statutory program
at issue as on slippery-slope concerns that could be invoked
in response to any RFRA claim for an exception to a gener-
ally applicable law. The Government’s argument echoes the
classic rejoinder of bureaucrats throughout history: If I
make an exception for you, I’ll have to make one for every-
body, so no exceptions. But RFRA operates by mandating
consideration, under the compelling interest test, of excep-
tions to “rule[s] of general applicability.” 42 U. S. C.
§2000bb–1(a). Congress determined that the legislated test
“is a workable test for striking sensible balances between
religious liberty and competing prior governmental inter-
ests.” §200bb(a)(5). This determination finds support in our
cases; in Sherbert, for example, we rejected a slippery-
slope argument similar to the one offered in this case,
dismissing as “no more than a possibility” the State’s
speculation “that the filing of fraudulent claims by un-
scrupulous claimants feigning religious objections to Sat-
urday work” would drain the unemployment benefits fund.
374 U. S., at 407.

    We reaffirmed just last Term the feasibility of case-by-
case consideration of religious exemptions to generally
applicable rules. In Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U. S. ___
(2005), we held that the Religious Land Use and Institu-
tionalized Persons Act of 2000, which allows federal and
state prisoners to seek religious accommodations pursuant
to the same standard as set forth in RFRA, does not vio-
late the Establishment Clause. We had “no cause to be-
lieve” that the compelling interest test “would not be
applied in an appropriately balanced way” to specific
claims for exemptions as they arose. Id., at ___ (slip op.,
at 12). Nothing in our opinion suggested that courts were
not up to the task.

    We do not doubt that there may be instances in which a
need for uniformity precludes the recognition of exceptions
to generally applicable laws under RFRA. But it would


Page 21

16 GONZALES v. O CENTRO ESPIRITA BENEFICENTE
UNIAO DO VEGETAL

Opinion of the Court

have been surprising to find that this was such a case,
given the longstanding exemption from the Controlled
Substances Act for religious use of peyote, and the fact
that the very reason Congress enacted RFRA was to re-
spond to a decision denying a claimed right to sacramental
use of a controlled substance. See 42 U. S. C.
§2000bb(a)(4). And in fact the Government has not offered
evidence demonstrating that granting the UDV an exemp-
tion would cause the kind of administrative harm recog-
nized as a compelling interest in Lee, Hernandez, and
Braunfeld. The Government failed to convince the District
Court at the preliminary injunction hearing that health or
diversion concerns provide a compelling interest in ban-
ning the UDV’s sacramental use of hoasca. It cannot
compensate for that failure now with the bold argument
that there can be no RFRA exceptions at all to the Con-
trolled Substances Act. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 17 (Deputy
Solicitor General statement that exception could not be
made even for “rigorously policed” use of “one drop” of
substance “once a year”).

IV

    Before the District Court, the Government also asserted
an interest in compliance with the 1971 United Nations
Convention on Psychotropic Substances, Feb. 21, 1971,
[1979–1980], 32 U. S. T. 543, T. I. A. S. No. 9725. The
Convention, signed by the United States and implemented
by the Controlled Substances Act, calls on signatories to
prohibit the use of hallucinogens, including DMT. The
Government argues that it has a compelling interest in
meeting its international obligations by complying with
the Convention.

    The District Court rejected this interest because it found
that the Convention does not cover hoasca. The court
relied on the official commentary to the Convention, which
notes that “Schedule I [of the Convention] does not list . . .


Page 22

Cite as: 546 U. S. ____ (2006) 17

Opinion of the Court


natural hallucinogenic materials,” and that “[p]lants as
such are not, and it is submitted are also not likely to be,
listed in Schedule I, but only some products obtained from
plants.” U. N. Commentary on the Convention on Psycho-
tropic Substances 387, 385 (1976). The court reasoned
that hoasca, like the plants from which the tea is made, is
sufficiently distinct from DMT itself to fall outside the
treaty. See 282 F. Supp. 2d, at 1266–1269.

    We do not agree. The Convention provides that “a
preparation is subject to the same measures of control as
the psychotropic substance which it contains,” and defines
“preparation” as “any solution or mixture, in whatever
physical state, containing one or more psychotropic sub-
stances.” See 32 U. S. T., at 546, Art. 1(f)(i); id., at 551,
Art. 3. Hoasca is a “solution or mixture” containing DMT;
the fact that it is made by the simple process of brewing
plants in water, as opposed to some more advanced
method, does not change that. To the extent the commen-
tary suggests plants themselves are not covered by the
Convention, that is of no moment—the UDV seeks to
import and use a tea brewed from plants, not the plants
themselves, and the tea plainly qualifies as a “prepara-
tion” under the Convention.

    The fact that hoasca is covered by the Convention,
however, does not automatically mean that the Govern-
ment has demonstrated a compelling interest in applying
the Controlled Substances Act, which implements the
Convention, to the UDV’s sacramental use of the tea. At
the present stage, it suffices to observe that the Govern-
ment did not even submit evidence addressing the inter-
national consequences of granting an exemption for the
UDV. The Government simply submitted two affidavits
by State Department officials attesting to the general
importance of honoring international obligations and of
maintaining the leadership position of the United States
in the international war on drugs. See Declaration of


Page 23

18 GONZALES v. O CENTRO ESPIRITA BENEFICENTE
UNIAO DO VEGETAL

Opinion of the Court

Gary T. Sheridan (Jan. 24, 2001), App. G to App. to Pet.
for Cert. 261a; Declaration of Robert E. Dalton (Jan. 24,
2001), App. H, id., at 265a. We do not doubt the validity of
these interests, any more than we doubt the general inter-
est in promoting public health and safety by enforcing the
Controlled Substances Act, but under RFRA invocation of
such general interests, standing alone, is not enough.
2

* * *

    The Government repeatedly invokes Congress’ findings
and purposes underlying the Controlled Substances Act,
but Congress had a reason for enacting RFRA, too. Con-
gress recognized that “laws ‘neutral’ toward religion may
burden religious exercise as surely as laws intended to
interfere with religious exercise,” and legislated “the
compelling interest test” as the means for the courts to
“strik[e] sensible balances between religious liberty and
competing prior governmental interests.” 42 U. S. C.
§§2000bb(a)(2), (5).

    We have no cause to pretend that the task assigned by
Congress to the courts under RFRA is an easy one. In-
deed, the very sort of difficulties highlighted by the Gov-
ernment here were cited by this Court in deciding that the
approach later mandated by Congress under RFRA was
not required as a matter of constitutional law under the
Free Exercise Clause. See Smith, 494 U. S., at 885–890.
But Congress has determined that courts should strike
sensible balances, pursuant to a compelling interest test
that requires the Government to address the particular
practice at issue. Applying that test, we conclude that the
courts below did not err in determining that the Govern-
ment failed to demonstrate, at the preliminary injunction
stage, a compelling interest in barring the UDV’s sacra-

——————

2

    In light of the foregoing, we do not reach the UDV’s argument that
Art. 22, ¶5, of the Convention should be read to accommodate excep-
tions under domestic laws such as RFRA.


Page 24

Cite as: 546 U. S. ____ (2006) 19

Opinion of the Court


mental use of hoasca.

    The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for
the Tenth Circuit is affirmed, and the case is remanded for
further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

    J USTICE A LITO took no part in the consideration or
decision of this case.

See also: guide for medical cannabis ministers. [external link] at www.CannabisClergy.com

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