Mooney still seeking return of peyote
Mooney still seeking return of peyote
The court cases are long over and his church has carried on through it all, but James Flaming Eagle Mooney still wants the federal government to return the peyote buttons it seized from his church eight years ago.
Mooney was the central figure in a series of court battles that began when the Utah County Attorney's Office charged him with possessing and distributing peyote. Mooney, the founder of the Oklevueha Earth Walks Native American Church of Utah, said the hallucinogenic cactus is used in religious ceremonies.
The Utah Supreme Court threw out the charges from the county attorney's office, and federal charges were dismissed in 2006. In June, federal officials even returned the "Peyote Chief," a cactus that presides over church ceremonies but is not ingested. But the U.S. Attorney's Office never returned the 15,000 peyote buttons that were seized from Mooney's church in Benjamin.
"Why would they return [the Peyote Chief] and not the other 15,000?" Mooney asked.
Melodie Rydalch, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Salt Lake City, said federal officials have no intention of returning the seized peyote buttons.
"The case ended with an agreement," she said. "There was nothing in the agreement about us giving them back. We believe it was illegal for him to have them. They're contraband and we're not going to give them back."
Federal law permits the use of peyote for religious purposes by Native Americans, but Mooney's cacti remain in limbo because of a dispute over whether he is a member of a federally recognized Indian tribe. Mooney said he is a member of the Florida-based Seminole tribe, but the U.S. Attorney's Office said he is not a member of that or any other federally recognized tribe.
With no legal recourse left, Mooney and other church members from across the country plan to petition all 100 members of the U.S. Senate. Mooney said the letters would likely start going out through the mail Thursday or today.
"I'm going to use political means," he said.
The agreement that ended Mooney's federal case includes a stipulation that he and his wife, Linda, will not possess or use peyote in any form. The agreement states that stipulation and several others will remain in effect until Mooney qualifies as a member of a federally recognized tribe; or a court rules that federal drug laws do not preclude the possession, use and distribution of peyote in Native American Church ceremonies without regard to tribal membership.
Though he maintains that he is a member of the Seminole tribe, Mooney cites a 1991 U.S. District Court ruling from New Mexico, U.S. v. Robert Lawrence Boyll, in defense of his use of peyote. He said the ruling protects the religious use of peyote by members of the Native American Church, regardless of whether the drug is used by a non-Indian member.
In the Boyll case, the judge ruled that "permitting Indians' non-drug use of peyote in bona fide religious ceremonies of [a] Native American church, but prohibiting such use by non-Indians, would violate free exercise and equal protection clauses."
There was a Utah case filed in 2000 against the Mooneys and their church in which the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Mooneys and the Oklevueha Earth Walks Native American Church of Utah. It ruled that "in interpreting the reach of the federal [religious peyote] exemption as incorporated into Utah law, we rely on its plain language, electing not to defer to a contrary interpretation that the state argues has been adopted by the federal DEA. On its face, the exemption applies to members of the Native American Church, without regard to tribal membership. The bona fide religious use of peyote cannot serve as the basis for prosecuting members of the Native American Church under state law." It sent the case back to district court, where it was later dismissed. That case had no impact on the federal case.
The building that Mooney and other members of his church used in Benjamin is long gone, but Mooney said they conduct ceremonies at other locations, and that they still use peyote for religious purposes.
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James Mooney holds a dry peyote chief that was confiscated in 2000 over the Oklevueha Native American Church's current peyote chief at his home in Spanish Fork Thursday, July 31, 2008. Federal authorities returned the church's peyote chief but maintain possession of 15,000 other peyote buttons belonging to the church.
James Warren "Flaming Eagle" Mooney, left, and Richard "He Who Has the Foundation" Swallow, co-founders of the Oklevueha Native American Church, sit for a portrait at the Mooney home in Spanish Fork Thursday, July 31, 2008. Federal authorities returned the church's spiritually significant peyote chief, pictured in small pot, eight years after it and 15,000 other peyote buttons were confiscated by Utah authorities.