Mother Teresa, Pierre Berton and "the tree of life" were all invoked Wednesday as spiritual guideposts by a senior member of a Toronto church seeking a religious exemption to the country's marijuana laws.
The references were part of testimony by Brother Peter Styrsky in Ontario Superior Court, as he explained his transformation from agitated delivery driver to a more spiritually content person as a minister within the Church of the Universe.
"I used to be very angry," Mr. Styrsky said. The affable witness explained that his life changes were due in part to marijuana use. "It is a high. But it is not just recreational. It's like a connection to God."
That is how I describe it. I understand a lot more than I did," he stated.
Mr. Styrsky and Brother Sharooz Kharaghani have launched a constitutional challenge to marijuana prohibitions, which began this week in Ontario Superior Court, arguing that it violates freedom of religion protections in the Charter of Rights.
For the first time, a court in Canada is being asked to set out a framework to decide whether a group and its practices qualify for Charter protection on religious grounds.
Experts on the history of psychoactive drug use in mainstream religions, as well as the criteria necessary to qualify as a religion, are scheduled to testify at the four-week hearing before Justice Thea Herman.
Mr. Styrsky and Mr. Kharaghani were charged with marijuana trafficking offences in September, 2006, for allegedly selling street-level amounts of cannabis to Toronto police officers.
The two men are ministers at the "G13 Mission" in the Beaches section of Toronto, which is a church, an organic plant store and allegedly an illegal source of marijuana.
Marijuana is referred to as "the tree of life" in the Church of the Universe, which has 4,000 members in Canada. "Cannabis consumption, although joyous, is not an end in itself but rather it is an important part of the road to greater understanding of God and the universe. If everybody consumed cannabis the world would be a more peaceful, respectful, joyous and spiritually curious place," their lawyers Paul Lewin and George Filipovic state in written arguments filed with the court.
The Church is not seeking an absolute right to consume and distribute marijuana, only for religious purposes with regulations similar to those in place for medical users, explained Mr. Lewin.
The federal government is arguing that the Church of the Universe is a "parody" of a religion. "Most people turn to religion as a moral guide. The Church of the Universe offers no teachings in this crucial realm beyond a single platitudinous tenet: Do no harm," state federal Crown lawyers Nicholas Devlin and Donna Polgar. "The Church of the Universe offers only a single-point of belief, namely that people should use marijuana," the Crown writes.
The federal government concedes that the case is unique since normally courts have been asked to determine if a practice is actually part of a recognized religion. The task for Judge Herman is to decide if the marijuana-based group's practices are religious in nature, the Crown notes.
"However challenging, it is important for the courts to set a threshold for entry into the tent of religious protection which weeds out frivolous or insufficient claims," the federal Crown writes.
The evidence at the hearing began with a somewhat unusual and lengthy explanation of objects brought from the G13 Mission, to try to show that it is a place of worship. There were small paintings, plaques and a number of books from its library.
Mr. Lewin would hold out each book and Mr. Styrsky would offer an observation. The works included a biography of Pope John Paul and two books about Mother Teresa. "She is dear to my heart. I think she really reflected what the Catholic Church should be doing," said Mr. Styrsky.
Some books by Pierre Berton are in the library, in part because of his public praise for marijuana use before he died.
There was also a study of Native American spirituality by Carlos Castaneda. "He is a spiritual mentor to Sharooz. I find him a little hard to read," noted Mr. Styrsky.
An advocate of organic farming, Mr. Styrksy appeared somewhat embarrassed when shown a photo of a potato chip dispensing machine at the G13 Mission, along with plants, seeds and marijuana paraphernalia.
"I don't think they are that healthy," he said about potato chips. "But some of our members have requested them, so we make them available."
April 7, 2010
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'Church of the Universe' members argue pot laws violate religious rights