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  1. Terrapinzflyer
    TORONTO -- It's judgment day Monday for a Toronto church -- the "Church of the Universe" -- that has asked a Superior Court judge for an exemption to the country's marijuana laws for religious reasons.

    If Madam Justice Thea Herman grants the exemption, it would strike down the laws prohibiting the possession, cultivation and distribution of marijuana.

    "It would effectively legalize marijuana because every pot smoker would find a new religion," argued Nick Devlin and Donna Polgar, of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, which opposes the bid.

    They urged the court to weed out frivolous claims.

    "The Church of the Universe ... offers marijuana -- however and whenever individuals want it," the lawyers stated in their factums filed in court.

    "Simply put, the mere fact that one profoundly enjoys using marijuana does not beget a constitutional right to traffic it commercially."

    It is expected that if the church wins the exemption, the federal government will appeal the decision to the Ontario Court of Appeal.

    It's believed to be the first time a Canadian court has been asked to define whether a religion's illegal practices are protected by the Charter of Rights.

    Lawyers Paul Lewin and George Filipovic, who represent two minister members of the church, argued the Church of the Universe views cannabis as sacred substance which brings them closer to God.

    The religion also teaches that Jesus Christ was anointed with a holy oil, containing a key ingredient which translates as cannabis, court heard.

    The two lawyers represent Peter Styrsky and Shahrooz Kharaghani, both minister-members of the Beaches Mission of God -- Assembly of The Church of the Universe (COU) location in east Toronto.

    By outlawing marijuana, the state is infringing on the Universe church-goers' Charter right of Freedom of Religion, their lawyers argue. Styrsky, 53, and Kharaghani, 31, were charged with trafficking marijuana after they allegedly sold pot to two undercover cops who infiltrated their church as members in 2006.

    By SAM PAZZANO, QMI Agency
    Last Updated: February 6, 2011



  1. Terrapinzflyer
    Marijuana law challenge denied by Ont. court

    A judge has thrown out a legal challenge that claimed Canada's marijuana laws violate the freedom of religion provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

    The challenge was brought by two Toronto men — Peter Styrsky and Shahrooz Kharaghani — who are reverends in a group called the Church of the Universe.

    The men allegedly sold pot to undercover police officers in 2006. They are facing charges of marijuana trafficking and their case is due back in court Feb. 21. The amount of pot sold was small and the officers buying it were posing as members of the church.

    The church uses the drug as a sacrament and argues the law infringes on their freedom of religion rights under the charter.

    Prosecutors, however, had argued that allowing the church's application would effectively legalize marijuana, as others facing drug charges would claim a religious right as well.

    In a decision released Monday, Justice Thea Herman of Ontario's Superior Court found that the church deserves protection under the charter as a religious group, even though some "may view the beliefs of the applicants and other members of the Church of the Universe as absurd."

    However, she ruled that Section 1 of the charter poses a reasonable limit on that religious freedom, particularly when it comes to trafficking the drug. She ruled that distributing marijuana is not an activity that deserves protection as a religious freedom.
    Trafficking not a 'religious act'

    "I do not accept that providing cannabis to people in the basement … was a religious act," she wrote. "They may well believe that providing [marijuana] to others is a good thing to do. That does not, however, transform its distribution into a religious belief or practice."

    She also ruled that providing a legal exemption for those who use marijuana for religious purposes is "not feasible" due to "the difficulties in identifying both the religious user and the religious use of cannabis.

    "The proposed institution of a system of state inquiries into people's religious beliefs has the potential to undermine the value we place on freedom of religion rather than promote it."

    Styrsky said he is considering an appeal of Monday's decision.

    "I think the judge said that we do have the right to use it. She just didn't know how to implement it for us," said Styrsky.

    Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed an application from church founders Walter Tucker and Michael Baldasaro for leave to appeal their 2007 marijuana trafficking convictions.

    On its website, the church refers to marijuana as God's "Tree of Life" and that God's children have a right to use it as a sacrament in "their lives and worship."

    "Church members are encouraged to surround themselves with the holy Tree of Life, not just inhaling it, but wearing it, growing it, writing on it, eating it, etc.," the site reads

    February 7, 2011
    CBC News

  2. Terrapinzflyer
    Pot-smoking church members vow to carry on

    Pot-smoking Church of the Universe members say a judge’s ruling upholding Canada’s marijuana-control laws won’t affect the way they commune with God.

    “It changes nothing. They raided one church,” Rev. Brother Davin Christensen, 33, said Monday afternoon before he lit a large marijuana vaporizer at Vapor Central lounge on Yonge St.

    Ontario Superior Court Justice Thea Herman ruled Monday that Canada’s laws against growing, smoking and selling marijuana are not unconstitutional, despite arguments from two accused church members.

    On Oct. 25, 2006, police charged Rev. Brother Peter Styrsky, 53, and Rev. Brother Shahrooz Kharaghani, 32, with trafficking in marijuana and hashish after raiding their church — Beaches Mission of God — on Queen St. E.

    But their lawyers, Paul Lewin and George Filipovic, argued that the cannabis plant is sacred to the men’s religion, the Assembly of the Church of the Universe, which claims about 35 active ministers and 4,000 members across Canada.

    They asked Herman to rule that Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act has no force or effect with regards to cannabis because it infringes on their freedom of religion.

    In her 66-page judgment, Herman agreed that laws against pot possession — though not trafficking — limited the two men’s freedom of religion, but she nonetheless dismissed their motion.

    “The applicants have established that their use of cannabis was, at least in part, related to a sincerely held religious belief,” Herman said.

    But she also found that the laws controlling the plant’s use meet a “pressing and substantive” goal: “The avoidance of harm to Canadians, in particular, the avoidance of harm to vulnerable individuals.”

    There is no reasonable way to allow for the use of cannabis for religious purposes, Herman wrote. “It is difficult, if not impossible for an outsider to identify the religious user . . . because religious use is barely distinguishable from recreational use.”

    Church members, some openly smoking pot outside the University Ave. courthouse, said they were disappointed with the ruling but will carry on using cannabis as a sacrament.

    “We’re going to continue what we do,” Christensen said.

    “Peace and love,” said Styrsky, who did not join others in lighting up after the ruling.

    The man who got 945 votes in Toronto’s 2006 mayoral race said his church would carry on, though he was not sure in what form. The married father of four said his immediate plans are to open a café at his Queen St. home, where the raided church once stood.

    “We are considering an appeal,” he added.

    Kharaghani’s lawyer said his client won’t give up practicing his religion, even if it means a lifetime of being in and out of jail.

    “As with many truly religious people there is no Plan B,” Filipovic said. “This is it for him for the rest of his life.”

    Federal prosecutors Donna Polgar and Nicholas Devlin said outside court that the judge was very clear that our cannabis laws are constitutional.

    “The question of whether it should be illegal or not remains one for Parliament,” Devlin added.

    It is the third time church members have raised religious Charter of Rights issues in defence of their cannabis use, but this is the fullest airing yet of the question.

    Styrsky and Kharaghani are back in court Feb. 25, where they could face a jury trial on the charges.

    Peter Small Courts Bureau

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