INDIANAPOLIS — The founder of the First Church of Cannabis here is suing the city's former police chief for defamation after being compared to infamous cult leader Jim Jones at a news conference in June.
Bill Levin, head of the controversial church, charges in the lawsuit that the comment from Rick Hite, former chief of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, was "extreme and outrageous conduct" that harmed Levin's reputation and caused emotional distress. "As Jim Jones once did within our state, he led a group of people into a place of no return. We don't want that to happen again in this state," the lawsuit accuses Hite of saying.
Jones started the Peoples Temple in Indianapolis and eventually relocated to California and then Guyana, where more than 900 of the cult leader's followers died by murder or suicide in 1978. The lawsuit does not specify the damages Levin is seeking. It was filed in Marion County court and also names the city and police department as defendants. Hite, now head of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, said he was not aware of the lawsuit and would not comment further. He resigned Dec. 31 after the city elected a new mayor.
The alleged defamatory quote came at a law-enforcement news conference less than a week before the church's inaugural service. Hite and Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry warned that anyone smoking marijuana at the church would be breaking the law and would be prosecuted. At the time, Levin said Hite's reference to Jones was "religious bigotry" and a "vulgar insult to our new religion."
Three days after the news conference, Levin said marijuana would not be part of the church's services. He said the church could press its version of religious liberty better in a civil lawsuit rather than a criminal case.
Levin and the church have a pending civil case against the state.
The Cannabis Church attracted international attention after the IRS granted it nonprofit status. Levin created the church in part to test Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The inaugural service at the church July 1 attracted national media, police and protesters. Food trucks and a Kool-Aid stand sat outside the church. Inside was a raucous mix of music, balloons and dancing in the aisles, as well as testaments to the benefits of cannabis, medicinal and otherwise.
Offering envelopes read, "One Toke. One Smile. One Love." The church's services continue every Wednesday.
By Mark Alesia - USA Today/March 4, 2016
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