Gov. Huntsman has an opportunity to stand for religious liberty. Alternatively, he could plunge the state into a lawsuit it has little chance of winning.
House Bill 60, which would allow members of federally recognized Indian tribes to use peyote for religious services, is on his desk awaiting his signature.
While it may be easy to sign the bill, Huntsman should veto it on constitutional grounds.
The bill was drafted to target one man: James Warren "Flaming Eagle" Mooney, leader of the Oklevueha EarthWalks Native American Church. Mooney has been in the legal cross hairs at various levels of government for five years because he allows non-Indians to join his church and participate in peyote ceremonies.
The U.S. Constitution bans bills of attainder, laws that specifically target an individual -- which is the effect of HB 60. That Mooney is the target is also supported by the legislative record, in which Mooney is singled out by name. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Curtis Oda, acknowledged in committee hearings that Mooney was the reason the bill was crafted.
If the bill becomes law, Mooney has a winning case and the state will be the big loser.
If that is not enough for Gov. Huntsman to kill the bill, he should consider the fact that federal prosecutors have now dropped drug charges against Mooney and his wife, Linda. The federal case was weakened by a recent ruling of the Supreme Court. In a settlement agreement made public Wednesday, prosecutors agreed to drop the drug possession and distribution charges against the Mooneys if they agree to affiliate with a federally recognized tribe, or if a court rules that the religious use of peyote is constitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a New Mexico church could use hallucinogenic tea in its religious services. This would seem to give Mooney a legal basis for conducting peyote services at his church again.
In light of that, the feds' conditions for dropping the vendetta appears to be a face-saving move. U.S. attorneys now don't have to admit to pushing a constitutionally dubious case. It seems they were able to read the handwriting on the wall and cut their losses.
Huntsman would do well to follow their lead and veto HB 60.
The First Amendment clearly states that government must take a hands-off approach to religion. HB 60 interferes with a church's right to determine who is worthy to participate in sacred ceremonies. Religious experience is not tied to race.
Surely Huntsman would not sign legislation that would dictate who could participate in LDS temple ceremonies. Nor should he authorize the state to tell Native American Churches who can participate in ceremonies. Peyote use is not widespread, nor is it likely ever to become so. The state Legislature simply made a mountain out of a molehill.
If Huntsman vetoes the bill, he will show that Utah respects freedom of religion, and he will bring a half-decade of persecution against Mooney to an end.
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A5.