"Bong Hits 4 Jesus"
Wow. I have to say, I'm truly impressed. Nobody at my high school had the guts to attempt a prank of this magnitude -- or for that matter, the legal resources to follow it through all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. At the risk of dating myself, when I was in school, we were still allowed to wear T-shirts emblazoned with marijuana leaves and any "pro-drug" text we wished, because the first amendment hadn't been eviscerated for students at the time. But then that was before Nancy Reagan got a bee in her bonnet about the entire situation.
The only unanswered question remaining (which news reports have been totally negligent in reporting) is: did he succeed in getting shots of the banner on local television? Inquiring minds want to know!
But seriously, while the details of the case have been adequately reported in the media, some facets of the situation have been completely ignored. While it has been amusing to hear crusty law school professors and other constitutional experts repeating "bong hits for Jesus" on national television, a bigger issue remains unexplored: what if the kid was actually serious?
R.J. Eskow wrote an article on Huffington Post earlier this week to make a fine case for the "pure free speech" argument, which took the view that it was a surrealistic and meaningless choice of words. The comments section to this article may even have shed light on the origins of the phrase, reportedly a popular radio show which plays a sound effect of someone doing a bong hit and then saying, "Thank you, Jesus!" Sounds plausible to me, although I have no way of confirming the phrase's semantic origins myself.
But what if the kid really was serious? What if he was advocating to all and sundry to do bong hits to worship Jesus Christ? He says he wasn't, but then that's the sort of thing you'd expect him to say after five years of consulting with lawyers about the constitutionality of a "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner.
From the Boston Herald: "[the student] said he first saw the slogan on a snowboard and thought it would make a good test of his rights because, though meaningless, it sounds provocative." He is also directly quoted as saying: "I wasn't trying to say anything religious, anything about drugs."
Even taking his statements at face value, the constitutional question will not go away: assuming (for the sake of legal argument) that he really was serious, doesn't this lead us to a different part of the first amendment -- the freedom of religion bit? This aspect also needs to be addressed, which is why some right-wing evangelical groups have sided with the ACLU and the kid, instead of with the school's principal and the Bush administration.
The core question can best be put as: is Rastafarianism constitutionally protected as a religion?
The answer is murky at best, which is why I wish the media (and the Supreme Court) would have used this opportunity to address it -- instead of brushing off "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" as either some wild pro-drug statement unconnected to religion, or, alternately, some surrealistic phrase that is humorous but ultimately meaningless.
The Establishment Clause
To examine the question, we start with the language of the first amendment to the Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...
The most common understanding of the verb "establish" in this context is "to make (a church) a national or state institution." But that is definition number seven in the dictionary I consulted. Definition number one (the most common usage of the word) is: "to found, institute, build, or bring into being on a firm or stable basis." And Congress has indeed made such a law when it comes to churches -- just ask the IRS.
Say (for the sake of example) I wanted to found a church that worshipped albino pigeons. The First Church of the Albino Pigeon could open its doors and register as a business entity without too much problem, but to be officially declared "a religion" by federal law (with all the tax breaks that implies) is much, much harder.
To become an official "religion" as far as the IRS (and the rest of the federal government) is concerned, I not only need my First Church of the Albino Pigeon, I also need a Bishop and a Seminary of the Albino Pigeon, in order to ordain new Albino Pigeon ministers, and to teach such ecclesiastical candidates the canonical law of albino pigeon worship.
I submit that this entire section of the tax code is clearly and blatantly unconstitutional, and should hence be thrown out. Congress, by way of the IRS tax code, has instituted strict rules for what constitutes a "religion" -- in other words, how a "religion" is "established."
Just ask the Scientologists how tough it is to convince the IRS. Magnanimously, I extend an offer to any worshipper of J.R. "Bob" Dobbs from the Church of the SubGenius™ (one of whose religious tenets is "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke!"), or any of the numerous followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (the Pastafarians) who should feel free to use my legal reasoning in any upcoming Supreme Court case -- if you can get the ACLU interested, that is.
Drugs, Religion, and the Free Exercise Clause
This gets even trickier. Although enlightened anthropologists will admit that the shamanistic use of psychoactive plants was likely a major part of the creation of the human concept of "religion" as we know it, the federal government is nowhere near that enlightened.
For example, Rastafarians are a sect of Christianity with their own interpretation of the Bible. They believe Jah (God) put ganja (marijuana) on earth for them to enjoy. They start with the very first page of the Bible, Genesis 1:29 [KJV] --
And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.
Rastafarians use ganja as a sacrament in their religion. However, the federal government has decreed that marijuana is illegal (even if it's the only thing keeping you alive), thereby trampling on the "free exercise" of Rastafarian religion. Don't expect this to change any time soon.
Which brings us to the story of Rev. Craig X. Rubin, whom (ironically enough) you may recognize as the guy who plays the pot club owner on the Showtime series Weeds. Reverend Rubin has just sued the government for raiding his "Temple 420" church. The good reverend wants $30 million, and he wants his weed back. More power to him, and I sincerely hope the ACLU (or maybe George Soros) will help him take this case to the Supreme Court, where it belongs.
Of course, this isn't a new idea. People have been trying (and failing) to claim marijuana as a religious sacrament since the 1960's. Although the government is obviously trampling both the supposedly unalienable right to "pursuit of happiness" and also the "free exercise" clause of the first amendment, they show no signs of backing down any time soon.
But there's an even better example of rampant hypocrisy by the federal government on the issue. If you were told there is a church in America where the government forbids people from taking sacraments based solely on their racial background, would you believe it? Such a concept is unconstitutional in so many ways, it is hard to count them accurately. Imagine if the federal government barred anyone who is not black from joining a traditionally black Southern Methodist church. Or forbidding anyone not racially Jewish from joining a synagogue. Just imagine the media outcry as the sheer racism and discrimination would be loudly condemned by all.
But such a church does exist in America. The church in question is the Native American Church, and they've been battling the government for almost a century over the sacred use of peyote (I admit I am oversimplifying the epic legal battle this issue has caused here, due to limitations of space). This legal battle has gone back and forth, with the courts, the states, and Congress all having their say. The most recent law (that I am aware of) that Congress passed in 1994 can be read here, but notice that the language always says it's OK for Indians to use peyote, but does not address usage by non-Indians.
While the mainstream Native American Church restricts membership to those with one-quarter Indian blood or more, there is an offshoot called the Peyote Way Church which is attempting to challenge (via another epic legal battle) the concept that non-Indians cannot worship in this way.
Bong Hits 4 Jesus. Amen.
So the question is still an open one: is the concept of doing bongs for Jesus a valid religious concept in America? Probably not, according to current law. Why is this? Again, I point the finger of blame at Nancy Reagan and the Drug War hysteria for the current situation. But the legal fight is older than that, and should eventually come before the Supreme Court as a religious issue rather than a free speech issue.
Because it's hard to reconcile federal law which states that if you are a certain race (Native American) you are allowed to use an illegal drug (peyote) with your religious ceremony, the practice of many Christian sects which use a legal drug (wine) as a sacrament, and the fact that Rastafarians can be arrested for being caught using their illegal sacrament (ganja). Legally, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
But then common sense has never been a strong point of the Drug War.
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