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Medicine man may file suit in peyote case February 20, 2005 newutah.com
A meeting of Utah County lawmakers and residents ended abruptly Saturday when a local Seminole medicine man vowed to file a lawsuit against any senator who would support legislation prohibiting his right to distribute peyote, part of a cactus used in a sacred ceremony, to non-American Indians.
"The Utah Supreme Court has ruled that we are within federal law," said James Warren "Flaming Eagle" Mooney to the more than 60 people present.
"Any senator that says we are not within federal law will be liable. We have a federal lawsuit, and we're just waiting to see who will endorse this bill."
Mooney was cut short when Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, president of the Utah Senate, stood and challenged him.
"I will not stand and be threatened with a lawsuit for doing our job," Valentine said. "I am leaving, and I encourage all of my colleagues to do the same."
He exited the room, others followed, and the meeting ended.
After the meeting, Mooney told the Daily Herald the lawsuit has been prepared for weeks and will be filed as soon as the legislative session ends in two weeks.
"We're waiting until after these sessions end, and then we'll take a roll call," Mooney said.
The first name on Mooney's list might be that of Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield. Oda sponsored House Bill 306, which would amend Utah's Controlled Substances Act to make it illegal for medicine men like Mooney to distribute peyote to non-American Indians.
Current law allows even non-American Indians to use peyote as part of American Indian religious ceremonies.
Peyote is a button-shaped hallucinogenic part of a cactus and is classified by the U.S. government as a controlled substance. But its use in centuries-old religious ceremonies among American Indian tribes has been allowed on the basis of religious freedom.
Oda said his bill will fill a loophole where Utah law does not properly align with federal law regarding peyote.
"This was requested by the Attorney General's Office," he said in a telephone interview Saturday. "The federal code already states that (peyote use) has to be for legally recognized Indian tribes. Otherwise what you've got is a legal way for people to use dope."
The Attorney General's Office could not be reached Saturday for comment.
Oda said he was not concerned by the threat of a lawsuit.
"He can name each one of us all he wants, but the issue is that because we're dealing in legislative issues, the state protects us," he said. "We're acting in good faith."
Oda said the requirements set forth in his bill are similar to those in state and federal gambling laws, which allow tribe members to operate casinos based on their ancestry.
Valentine, in a telephone interview after Saturday's meeting, said Mooney came close to breaking the law by threatening a lawsuit against legislators.
"That (threat) is probably over the line and possibly a criminal violation itself. He's very close to the line of extortion -- attempting to elicit a result from the Legislature by threats or intimidation."
Mooney might have singled out senators because the bill has already advanced steadily in the House. Friday, the bill was placed on the calendar to be read for the third and final time.
Mooney's appearance Saturday follows years of disputes with Utah authorities over his possession, use and distribution of peyote to those who worship in American Indian religious ceremonies.
Mooney and his wife, Linda, founded the Utah chapter of the Oklevueha EarthWalks American Indian Church in 1997 in Benjamin, near Spanish Fork. In October 2000, Utah County Sheriff's deputies raided the church and seized nearly 17,500 peyote buttons in addition to the church's computers and records. Mooney and his wife were arrested the next month and posted bond; the Utah chapter of the church has since declared bankruptcy. In 2001, the Mooneys were charged with 10 first-degree felony counts of operating a controlled substance criminal enterprise, and one count of racketeering, a second-degree felony.
The couple faced life in prison for the charges. In June 2003, the Utah Supreme Court ordered those charges dismissed.