So holds the Minnesota Court of Appeals in today’s In the Matter of the Welfare of J.J.M. A. (surprisingly, an opinion labeled by the court as nonprecedential). J.J.M.A. was arrested for, among other things, possession of a glass pipe used for smoking marijuana, which was covered by the state ban on possessing drug paraphernelia. Minnesota courts have interpreted the Minnesota Constitution as presumptively mandating religious exemptions from generally applicable laws. J.J.M.A. claimed that he was entitled to such an exemption, because he is a practicing Rastafarian, and “the pipe is integral to his religious belief, both to use to smoke and as a personal reminder of his faith.”
“[T]he district court held that J.J.M.A. failed to satisfy his burden of establishing a sincerely held belief that the Rastafari religion requires that he carry his pipe with him at all times.” But the court of appeals disagreed:
J.J.M.A. testified that he carries his pipe with him as a reminder of his faith and so that he can “perform what needs to be performed, which is smoking.” He stated that the colors that appear on his pipe — red, yellow, and green — have religious significance: “[r]ed for the blood [of] the martyrs; yellow for the sun that grows the greens, the sacred herb; the purity of nature.” And he testified that even when he is not actively practicing his religion, “I do remind myself of it all the time.”
J.J.M.A.’s testimony was supported by K.H., a Rastafarian with a background in religious studies. K.H. testified that Rastafarians use the pipe — which he also called a “chalice” — to smoke during “reasoning circles” and that “it’s part of the actual sacramental process itself to be using a pipe [as] opposed to using any other device.” He testified that the cannabis plant is “something that we should use throughout our entire day…. [T]here is a large variety of uses, but definitely the use of it in a pipe in a sacramental setting is an essential component of that usage.” According to K.H., there are no set times for reasoning circles or other gatherings, but the “religious tradition, this chalice or this pipe is something that can be self-administered,” and that “everyone is deemed to be able to instigate a gathering.” … Here, there is no evidence that J.J.M.A.’s conduct — possession of a cannabis pipe — was based on anything other than his sincere belief in the tenets of his religion.
The district court emphasized the fact that J.J.M.A. did not testify that he was required to possess his pipe at all times and that he could not give a specific “religious justification for having a cannabis pipe on the street in front of his grandfather’s house.” We have found no legal support for the conclusion that religious practices involving individual discretion as to time and place cannot constitute “a sincere religious belief intended to be protected by section 16.” J.J.M.A. testified to his belief that the pipe was meaningful to his religious tradition, that he was required to have the pipe at some times to practice his religion, and that he carried the pipe as a reminder of his faith. In the absence of evidence or argument that J.J.M.A.’s belief was not held in good faith, we will not enquire further into the justification, logic, or comprehensibility of this belief.
Nor was the court moved by the argument that the illegality of marijuana justified rejecting the claimed exemption from the drug paraphernelia law. First,
[T]he state improperly shifts the burden to J.J.M.A. and argues that, because the pipe may be used for an illegal purpose and because J.J.M.A. has not challenged the constitutionality of the controlled substance laws, he cannot succeed. But the state’s argument that J.J.M.A. only possessed the pipe for an illegal purpose — a conclusion not supported by the record — merely articulates enforcement of controlled-substance laws as a competing interest. It does not explain how enforcement of section 152.092, a petty misdemeanor, is inconsistent with public safety in this instance.
Second, the court suggested that a religious exemption might be available even from the ban on marijuana possession, though it didn’t conclusively decide the matter (nor discuss whether the exemption would be available to minors):
Further, the state’s argument relies on the assumption that the Minnesota Constitution does not protect a sincerely held religious belief in the use of marijuana. But the state relies on cases decided under the federal constitution, not the “distinctively stronger” language of section 16. Minnesota courts have not addressed the question of whether the state’s interest in enforcement of controlled-substance laws is sufficient to defeat a claim under section 16. See State v. Pedersen, 679 N.W.2d 368, 376-77 (Minn. App. 2004) (declining to address the issue because appellant failed to meet her burden to establish a sincerely held belief).
We noted in Pedersen that the state could not rely solely “on the legislature’s enactment of statutes prohibiting the possession of marijuana to defeat a claim under article I, section 16.” Even if we assume a compelling interest in enforcing controlled-substance laws, the state must provide “evidence that its compelling interest in public safety could not be achieved by less restrictive means.” In this case, the state has not demonstrated that applying the drug-paraphernalia law to an individual with a genuinely held belief in possessing a cannabis pipe is the least-restrictive means of enforcing controlled-substance laws.
It will be interesting to see whether the state asks the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the case; if it does, I think there’s a substantial chance that the state supreme court will indeed review it, even though the Court of Appeals for some reason decided to label the opinion as nonprecedential. For more on religious exemption law generally, and on why state religious exemption rules are so important, see this post.