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U.S. may charge peyote user

Letter warns Utahn, wife state ruling won’t protect them

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James Mooney prays over his peace pipe as he prepares to lead a small group in a ceremony in the mountains near Fountain Green in June.

James Mooney prays over his peace pipe as he prepares to lead a small group in a ceremony in the mountains near Fountain Green in June.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

With a recent Utah Supreme Court ruling throwing a wrench in the state peyote prosecution of James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney, federal prosecutors are now considering filing charges against the Utah County man.

In a letter dated Aug. 20, the U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah warned Mooney and his wife, Linda, that their continued use of peyote could subject them to possible prosecution under federal drug laws.

"Although the Utah Supreme Court has recently ruled that you may sell or otherwise distribute peyote under state law, that ruling does not control or bind the federal government," states the letter, signed by the office's criminal division chief, Richard Lambert.

The letter advises the Mooneys that the office is "reviewing your conduct for consideration of seeking federal charges."

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment on the letter or specify if federal prosecutors are close to bringing charges against the Mooneys.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that Mooney could distribute peyote to members of his Oklevueha Earth Walks Native American Church, regardless of race. The "bona fide religious use of peyote" cannot subject a person to state prosecution, the unanimous court said.

Over the state's objections, the high court determined the exemption applied to all legitimate members of the Native American Church, even non-Indians such as James and Linda Mooney.

The court reached its conclusion by incorporating the Federal Controlled Substance Act into state laws controlling drug use.

Federal laws governing the use, possession and transportation of peyote allow Indians to use the mind-altering drug for "bona fide traditional ceremonial purposes in connection with the practice of a traditional Indian religion."

The law defines an "Indian" as a member of a recognized Indian tribe, and an "Indian religion" as any religion whose "origin and interpretation . . . from within a traditional Indian culture or community."

After receiving Lambert's letter this week, Mooney wrote to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, asking for the senior senator's help to end the "official tyranny" against his church.

"Our members, who were just beginning to return to the church . . . are once again afraid to come to church ceremonies and worship because of these continued threats," Mooney wrote in the Thursday letter.

"We know that you are a champion of religious freedom and pray that you will be able to use your wisdom to help us find a way to fulfill the promise of the First Amendment, so that we can enjoy our God-given right to take our religious sacraments without persecution from the government."

Mooney founded the Oklevueha Earth Walks Native American Church in Benjamin, a rural community west of Spanish Fork, in 1997. The Native American Church operates throughout the United States and Canada, and each chapter operates autonomously and sets its own rules.

E-mail: awelling@desnews.com