Church founder sues for the return of peyote seized in Utah County
An American Indian church and its founder filed suit Wednesday against Utah County authorities. It seeks the return of peyote seized in a 2000 raid and a court order blocking any interference with the use of the hallucinogenic in religious ceremonies.
James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney said he wants to resume use of the "medicine" after more than four years of legal battles over the right of all members of his Oklevueha Earthwalks Native American Church to take part in ceremonies, regardless of ethnicity.
"All I've ever wanted was to be left alone, to help the people who come to me for help," said Mooney, who identifies himself as a medicine man.
Mooney, 61, claims he is a descendent of American Indians and a member of a Seminole tribe that is not federally recognized. He purchased his peyote from Texas, where the cactuses are legally harvested and sold.
Mooney's lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, names as defendants Utah County Attorney Kay Bryson, Deputy County Attorney David Wayment and several other individuals he says deprived him, his wife, Linda Mooney, and other church members of their constitutional rights. In addition to return of the peyote, the suit seeks unspecified monetary damages.
The Mooneys were charged in state court with a dozen first-degree felony counts after police seized 12,000 peyote buttons during an October 2000 raid at the Utah County church.
The criminal charges were dismissed after the Utah Supreme Court ruled unanimously last June that members of the Native American Church cannot be prosecuted for using peyote as part of their religion.
The Mooneys and other church members, regardless of race, can use the hallucinogenic cactuses under a federal exemption passed in 1970 that is incorporated in Utah law, the high court said.
Despite the ruling, however, the seized peyote has remained in the custody of state prosecutors. Federal authorities, saying only enrolled members of tribes who also are members of the Native American Church can use peyote, are investigating.
Peter Stirba, a lawyer representing the Utah County defendants, said the peyote was seized four years before the Supreme Court established how the federal exemption applied to state law. That means there is no basis for the claims that authorities showed bad faith at the time of the 2000 raid and violated the church's rights, he said.
Stirba added that a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office has said there is an ongoing investigation into possible federal violations.
"They have the right to retain evidence," he said.