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Jed Boal ReportingFor three years a Utah County man has fought for his right to practice his religion; he made his case to the Utah Supreme Court today.
The man, who is part-Native American, says he has a right to use peyote in his church ceremonies, but the state disagrees.
James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney, Oklevueha Earth Walk Native American Church: “We should have the same rights as any church in the United States."
To James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney and the members of his Earth Walks Native American Church, the hallucinogenic drug peyote is a deity used in sacraments.
Katherine Collard, Mooney's Lawyer: “Native American church members revere peyote as a deity and sacrament. It has nothing to do with illegal drug use."
To the state of Utah he's a drug criminal, facing 11 felony charges, who illegally gave peyote to non-Native Americans.
Kris Leonard, Asst. Attorney General: “You can believe anything you want, but practicing a religion is where the state and the government have to step in."
Three years ago Utah County Sheriff's deputies raided Mooney's church in Benjamin, Utah and charged him with giving the drug to church members. Attorneys today argued their opinions before the state's high court.
Katherine Collard, Mooney's Lawyer: “The use of peyote by members of the Native American church is not illegal."
Native Americans in federally-recognized tribes are allowed to use peyote in sacraments; they have an exemption, non-native American's do not. And the state argues federal law allows that peyote use, Utah law does not.
Kris Leonard, Asst. Attorney General: “It's got to be specifically excepted according to our state statute, and it's not."
Mooney counts more than 300 people as members of his church. As he sees it, an attack on his church is an attack on all churches. The lower court ruled the state has a compelling interest to prohibit illegal drug use. Mooney supporters argue ceremonial peyote use is not dangerous or addictive.
Jareth McCarey, Church Participant: “Our teachings by our elders is, if anybody comes to the spirit, it's not my place to deny them."
The state, however, cannot judge the true belief of those who attend the ceremonies.
James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney, Oklevueha Earth Walk Native American Church: “I just want to do ceremonies. I just want to be left alone and take care of the people who come to me for help."
If he's denied by the Utah supreme court, Mooney says he'll push his case all the way to the united states supreme court. The attorney general's office wants to see him in district court on trial.
The court is likely to take three to six months to make a ruling.