One day after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the religious use of certain hallucinogenic plants, the U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah announced it was dropping felony peyote distribution charges against the founders of a Utah County-based Native American Church.

In a press release, federal prosecutors announced they had reached a settlement agreement with James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney and his wife, Linda Mooney, and that the decision to drop the charges had nothing to do with Tuesday's U.S. Supreme Court decision. James Mooney told the Deseret Morning News that he felt the charges being dropped had everything to do with the Supreme Court decision.

James Mooney said he received the news of the charges being dropped from his attorney Wednesday morning. "My feelings are, without a doubt, a lot of gratitude for the Constitution of the United States," Mooney said. "I'm honored that I, for whatever reason, was chosen to make a stand under all kinds of opposition."

The couple has survived prosecution by the Utah County Attorney's Office, whose charges were thrown out by the Utah Supreme Court. Now the Mooneys have dodged the possibility of facing several decades in federal prison.

The U.S. Attorney's Office states it has agreed to drop the federal indictment. In exchange, the Mooneys have agreed to never again possess, buy, use or distribute peyote "until they become members of a federally recognized tribe or there is a definitive clarification of the law regarding the use of peyote by court ruling or legislative action."

The agreement also specifies that the Mooneys can be re-indicted on the same charges if they violate the terms of the agreement. The statute of limitations were also waived on the charges.

But Mooney said he and his wife signed that agreement about two weeks ago. Given the high court's ruling allowing religious use of some hallucinogens, he said he plans to have the agreement thrown out of court.

"It is totally unconstitutional," Mooney said about the agreement, adding the U.S. Supreme Court has made it "crystal clear" about his rights.

But given the long legal battle he has undergone, Mooney said he plans to play it safe and make sure the agreement is legally nullified before resuming practice.

"I'm going to counsel with my attorneys to see if we need to file anything, because I want to be crystal clear," he said. "I want everything to be above board."

In Tuesday's ruling, the high court ruled unanimously the government failed to demonstrate a compelling interest in prohibiting a religious sect in New Mexico from using a hallucinogenic tea known as hoasca, which is derived from two plants found in the Amazon region.

The group had claimed it had a constitutional right to use the tea under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Chief Justice John G. Roberts noted that the use of the tea was "a sincere exercise of religion" and in his ruling noted the decision also encompassed the use of peyote.

Buoyed by this decision, Mooney said he feels, while he fights his agreement, members of his church should be free to resume their ceremonies without his participation. "Our church is totally vindicated, and we can now purchase and use peyote," Mooney said.

Asked if he planned to resume peyote ceremonies, Mooney said, "Heavens yes."

But Mooney was tight-lipped when it came to a timeline for when he will resume and the times and locations of peyote ceremonies, which he said he only does by request.

"From my understanding, I could go and do it right now," he said. "But the last time I announced a ceremony, it was just a prayer pipe ceremony, and I had 18 agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration show up. It kind of ruins the spirituality when 18 DEA agents show up."

U.S. District Attorney Criminal Division Chief Richard Lambert said the law, as he sees it, still requires anyone who uses peyote for religious purposes to be a member of a federally recognized Indian tribe. "Congress has spoken on this," Lambert said, pointing out that unlike hoasca, which is unregulated, Congress has specifically regulated peyote. Anyone who is not a member of a federally recognized tribe, including members of Mooney's church, is still breaking the law.

As for challenging the agreement with his office, Lambert pointed out that it was Mooney who had initiated the agreement through his attorney, not federal prosecutors.

Lambert said it remains to be seen how the high court ruling will effect cases like Mooney's.

Mooney called such a policy limiting peyote use to Indians, including those by the Native American Church of North America, "racist." He also said he doesn't see this as a fight but much more.

"It's never been a fight for me, it's always been a stand," Mooney said.


Contributing: Jeremy Twitchell

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com