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Houses of the Holy

Psychedelic churches are testing the limits of the First Amendment

Damon Orion

In late June, the Supreme Court ruled that a high school coach had the right to lead his football team in postgame prayers on the field. In response, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert aired a segment in which a fictional high school football coach gave his team an above-average pregame speech. The coach—Billy Bob Thornton’s character from Friday Night Lights with a voiceover—explained that he belonged to the Church of the True Inner Light, which regards psychedelics such as “magic” mushrooms, DMT and LSD as sacraments. Then he informed the members of his team that he had dosed them with ayahuasca.

The Late Show clip was, of course, satire, but The Temple of the True Inner Light is real. Just as the coach in the video describes, this church’s congregation believes that psychedelics are literally God’s flesh. And while The Late Show may have been portraying this sect as a loony cult, the belief that psychedelic mushrooms are a physical manifestation of the divine is hardly a new one. It goes back at least as far as the 16th century, when the Aztecs referred to the mushrooms that they consumed in spiritual rituals as teonanacatl (Flesh of the Gods). 

For that matter, the whole idea of a psychedelic church is far from novel. Religious adherents have been using entheogens like peyote and psychedelic mushrooms in religious ceremonies for thousands of years. In more recent times, we’ve seen the rise of modern churches and temples based on the use of psychedelic medicines like peyote, ayahuasca and 5-MeO-DMT. 

As it stands, however, only three churches in the world have legal clearance to use psychedelics: the Native American Church (also referred to as the “peyote religion”) and two Brazilian ayahuasca churches, Santo Daime and the Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal (known as the UDV in the U.S.). Any other religious assembly that uses entheogens is in danger of incurring the proverbial wrath of God.

Religious Prosecution

In theory, the freedom of religious practice granted by the First Amendment, as well as by 1993’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, includes the right to use psychedelics as sacraments. However, to exercise that right, a given church must be able to demonstrate that it is sincere in using these medicines with spiritual intent. Its sacrament of choice must also be fundamental to the group’s religious practice.

Entheogenic churches of questionable sincerity shouldn’t expect to be given a pass. Take, for example, the Zide Door Church of Entheogenic Plants in Oakland, California. Despite the decriminalization of psilocybin in Oakland, police raided this facility in 2020, claiming that this was a good old-fashioned ’shroom and marijuana shop taking the name of the Almighty in vain.

Even churches that seem to be sincere have been targeted by the law. For instance, in the past couple of years, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has seized ayahuasca from dozens of entheogenic churches that import the medicine to the U.S. for use in ceremony. Two such churches in Arizona—the Church of the Eagle and the Condor and the Arizona Yagé Assembly—are in the process of suing the DEA after having their sacrament confiscated by federal authorities.

Meanwhile, a group called the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education (ICEERS) is assisting with the legal defense of church members and other individuals who have been arrested on ayahuasca-related charges. Their work helps see to it that only a small number of these arrestees end up in prison.

Another U.S.-based psychedelic church that has come under fire in recent times is the Sacred Tribe, a small Jewish community in Denver, Colorado that uses methods like breathwork, nature immersion and the ritual ingestion of psychedelics as Kabbalistic practices. Ironically, the Sacred Tribe’s founder, Rabbi Ben Gorelick, was busted for being too up-front and by-the-book. Assuming he and his congregation were safe under local and state laws, he requested a fire inspection to make sure the facility was up to city safety codes. Upon seeing the psychedelic mushrooms that the community was openly growing for use in religious ceremony, the fire inspector informed the police. In spite of the fact that Colorado’s state laws allow the use of psychedelics in spiritual practice, and that mushrooms have been decriminalized in Denver since 2019, Gorelick now faces a felony drug charge that could land him in prison for eight to 32 years.

Divine Intervention?

The DEA currently classifies psychedelics like psilocybin, peyote and LSD as Schedule I substances—the same category as heroin. One of the defining characteristics of Schedule I drugs is that they supposedly have no medicinal value. With mounting scientific data attesting to the efficacy of entheogenic medicine, it’s likely a matter of time until these compounds are reclassified. When that happens, psychedelic churches may start to crop up in unprecedented numbers.

Spirituality aside, this could serve at least one entirely worldly purpose: If the merger of psychedelics and big pharma drives the prices of these medicines into the stratosphere, membership in an entheogenic church could enable psychedelic users to access their sacraments without paying ungodly prices. 

Of course, with the prospect of more psychedelic churches comes the danger of cultism and abuse. After all, we need look no further than the Manson Family to see just how catastrophic things can get when impressionable minds are fed a combination of psychotropic substances, weird doctrines, hierarchical structures and unhealthy codes of conduct.

The Divine Assembly, a sect in Salt Lake City, Utah that uses psilocybin as a sacrament, is trying to avoid these pitfalls by keeping its precepts as minimal as possible. This religion has only one tenet: Through the use of sacred mushrooms, everyone can make direct contact with, and receive guidance from, the divine.

In The Divine Assembly’s view, worship requires no dogma or intermediaries. Since you can commune directly, you don’t need anyone else to tell you how to live,” the group’s website proclaims. “No one else has the manual for your life. 

That said, this church has established some basic rules and practices to help prevent disaster. For example, after some male members of the congregation allegedly proposed that females be naked during mushroom ceremonies, a policy went into place that prohibited nudity and/or sexual activity during group worship.

The Divine Assembly’s founders, Steve and Sara Urquhart, are ex-members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, formerly known as the Mormon Church. As Steve, a former right-wing Republican lawmaker who underwent a radical transformation in the latter half of the 2010s, told DoubleBlind magazine, “Rather than pulling in what I learned from Mormonism, I hope that I am addressing the things that stunted my spiritual development.” 

This, he said, includes “other humans telling a worshiper what to think and imposing all sorts of ridiculous requirements. I just have to believe that the amazing-infinite-wonderful-whatever-it-is-that-puts-the-universe-in-motion, which I call the Divine, just doesn’t give any shits about any of that stuff.”

Damon Orion is a writer, musician, artist and teacher based in Santa Cruz, CA. He has written for Revolver, Guitar World, Spirituality & Health, Classic Rock, High Times and other publications. Read more of his work at  

Read more: Is This Trip Really Necessary?

Read more: Organic vs. Synthetic 5-meO-DMT: The Psychedelic Toad Dilemma

Read more: How Do Mushrooms Communicate?

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