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Battle Continues Between Iowa Church and IRS Over Church’s Use of Hallucinogenic Drug in Services

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An Iowa church that uses a hallucinogenic drug as part of its religious ceremonies is engaged in an ongoing fight to win tax-exempt status from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.

Photo by Abhas Jaiswal / Pexels / Creative Commons

The Iowaska Church of Healing of Des Moines sued the IRS in U.S. District Court last year for denying its request to be recognized as a nonprofit organization.

According to the lawsuit, the church first applied for tax exemption in January 2019, but the application was denied because the church uses “the Sacrament of Ayahuasca,” a plant-based psychedelic substance that’s illegal in the United States, in its religious practices.

The church said in the filing that its doctrine comes from the Ayahuasca Manifesto, a sacred document that “details the role of ayahuasca for human beings, its purpose and the expansion of consciousness,” and that its primary purpose is to “operate a spiritual church that conducts regular worship services using the Sacrament of Ayahuasca.”

The services also involve prayers, smudging, and spiritual music, the suit says, and the church operates “various educational and mission groups” and conducts outreach services to veterans of the United States Armed Services at no or reduced cost.

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The church held five services using the substance in May, June, and July 2019, charging members $333 each to attend the ceremonies and offering additional “private ceremonies” for $800, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch report, but the church says it has not conducted any religious ceremonies using ayahuasca since then.

The lawsuit says the tax-exempt status denial directly contradicts the United States Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling in Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, which involved a church whose members received communion by drinking ayahuasca.

In that case, after U.S. Customs officials seized a shipment of ayahuasca destined for the church and threatened prosecution under the Controlled Substance Act (CSA), the church argued that application of the CSA to the church’s use of Ayahuasca violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993.

The Supreme Court ruled the government’s actions violated RFRA and affirmed a lower court’s preliminary injunction in favor of the church.

The Iowaska Church of Healing argues that it is classified as a non-profit corporation and as a religious corporation under Iowa law and as such should be recognized as tax-exempt.

State records indicate the church is run by Admir Dado Kantarevic, along with Billy Benskin and Merzuk Ramic, per the Capital Dispatch, and its headquarters is an address that was Kantarevic’s home in Des Moines until he sold it last July. Kantarevic also has a previous conviction for possessing anabolic steroids, the newspaper reported.

A trial date has yet to be scheduled in the case, and earlier this year both sides filed motions for summary judgment in their favor. No ruling has been made on those motions.

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Anne Stych

Anne Stych is a writer in Charlotte, North Carolina.