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Homeowners appeal Santa Fe County alternative church plan

The Associated Press

SANTA FE – A group of Santa Fe-area homeowners is appealing Santa Fe County’s decision to allow construction on Seagram’s whiskey heir Jeffrey Bronfman’s property where church members drink a hallucinogenic tea as a sacrament.

The six Arroyo Hondo homeowners object to the county spending about $400,000 to extend a waterline and build a sewage-treatment system there, saying using taxpayer money violates New Mexico’s anti-donation clause and the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

The notice of appeal was filed by Joseph Karnes on behalf of the homeowners in state court on Wednesday.

“While the waterline might have tangential benefits to the area, the expenditure of public funds in an effort to solve a private developer’s problems is blatantly unconstitutional,” Karnes told the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Members of the Santa Fe area chapter of O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal (Portuguese for “central beneficial spirit united in plants”), or UDV, consistently have declined public comment about their successful legal battles, which began more than a decade ago.

The religion originated in the late 1950s, when a Brazilian rubber tapper sampled a mixture of two plants that contain the hallucinogen N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, known as hoasca and used by Amazonian natives for centuries.

Combining elements of Christianity and often proscribing the use of alcohol, the practice grew quickly in Brazil.

Bronfman began holding UDV services in a yurt near his home off Brass Horse Road in Arroyo Hondo. On March 21, 1999, federal agents raided his Santa Fe office, seizing more than 30 gallons of hoasca that had just arrived from Brazil.

The Santa Fe congregation responded by filing a federal lawsuit that demanded the return of the hoasca, which was likened to a divine entity. The lawsuit said the raid violated the group’s rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration act and the U.S. Constitution.

UDV’s lawyer, Nancy Hollander argued there are no mental or physical maladies associated with consuming hoasca. She said the intake is so small that it does not cause hallucinations, but only heightens perception.

During a hearing in 2001, Bronfman testified the seizure of the tea harmed “the core of my being.”

U.S. District Judge James Parker eventually ruled that UDV’s use of hoasca is protected under freedom of religion but the government appealed. The U.S. Supreme Court in early 2006 unanimously found in favor of the church, clearing the way for the legal use of hoasca.

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