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Native American church's items are returned

It's been more than two years since federal felony peyote charges were dropped against the founders of a Utah County-based Native American church.

Now, James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney, his wife, Linda Mooney, and other members of the Oklevueha Native American Church are celebrating the recent return of documents and ceremonial items that had been seized as part of the federal investigation.

James Mooney said he was particularly grateful for the return of the "Peyote Chief," which he said is a peyote button, kept in a ceramic pot, designated to guide a ceremony.

"They took it off of our altar. It's almost as if they took a chalice from a Catholic church," James Mooney said Monday before a ceremony planned to be performed outside the Utah Federal Public Defender's Office. About a dozen people gathered for the ceremony honoring the Mooneys' defense.

However, Mooney says his legal struggle isn't yet over. Mooney is now seeking private counsel to try to gain back what he says are some 15,000 buttons of peyote, enough for 30,000 ceremonies.

The return of the peyote wasn't part of the 2006 agreement in which charges against the Mooneys were dropped, said Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"It was illegal for him to possess it," Rydalch said. "We believe the peyote was contraband."

In the agreement, the Mooneys agreed to never possess, buy, use or distribute peyote "until they become members of a federally recognized tribe or there is definitive clarification of the law regarding the use of peyote by court ruling or legislative action."

The U.S. Attorney's Office said in 2006 that its decision to drop the charges was independent of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the use of certain hallucinogenic plants, including peyote, for religiou purposes.

But the Mooneys and their supporters see their struggle as a religious one. Mooney says peyote is a "very sacred" part of some of his religious ceremonies.

Mooney's son Jareth McCarey of Murray said Monday's event was a celebration of his parents' freedom.

"They took a long hard road to defend, not only their rights, but the rights of anyone who chooses to follow this path," McCarey said.