Iowa Church Using Hallucinogen During Services Denied Tax-Exempt Status

The IRS has defended its decision to deny tax-exempt status to an Iowa church that uses the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca in its services and ceremonies.

The Iowaska Church of Healing applied for tax-exempt status with the IRS in January 2019. The church was formed in September 2018, according to state records, and listed the home of one of its co-founders, Admir Dado Kantarevic, as its address.

The church, which had as many as 20 members at one time, holds a "Sacrament of Ayahuasca." Its members use the hallucinogenic for spiritual, physical and emotional healing as well as to develop a psychic and spiritual connection to the divine.

Numerous other Native American cultures have used ayahuasca for similar purposes. But even though Kantarevic said that he never conducted any such ceremonies at his home or elsewhere in the state, the substance remains illegal in the United States.

ayahuasca church denied tax exempt status IRS
The IRS has defended its decision to deny tax-exempt status to a church that uses the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca in its services and ceremonies. In this photo, a healer in La Calera, Cundinamarca department, Colombia begins a ceremony by pouring Yage, a mixture of ayahuasca and a psychoactive bush. Both are used in traditional indigenous rituals of spiritual and physical healing which are more difficult to obtain in countries where the plants are considered as drugs. Eitan Abramovich / AFP/Getty Images

After the IRS initially denied the church tax-exempt status, the church's co-founders sought an expedited appeal in April, with the assistance of Republican Senator Chuck Grassley's office. But the federal tax agency sent a final letter re-affirming its decision last June.

The IRS' final decision said it denied the church's tax-exempt status "for multiple reasons," including the fact that ayahuasca use is illegal. The IRS also said the church is "not a church or a convention or association of churches" as defined by federal tax regulations, The Iowa Capital Dispatch reported.

Ayahuasca, also known as dimethyltryptamine or DMT, is a Schedule I drug, meaning that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considers it as having no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

In February 2019, the church sought a religious exemption from the DEA, but the DEA provided "no substantive response" to the request, the Dispatch reported.

The church eventually sued the IRS in October, seeking a judicial review of the tax agency's decision. This week, the IRS issued a court filing in the case standing by its final decision.

The church said the IRS' denial violated a unanimously decided 2006 Supreme Court decision allowing members of a New Mexico church to use ayahuasca as a way of expressing religious freedom.

In that case, the church sued the DEA, claiming that the DEA's confiscation of a Brazilian ayahuasca shipment address to the church violated the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

RFRA says the government can't substantially burden a person's exercise of religion without provably furthering a compelling government interest in the least restrictive way possible.

In the 2006 case, the Supreme Court said that the DEA failed to prove that the hallucinogenic would harm the church's members or lead to the substance being abused in a non-religious way.

The ruling compared ayahuasca to peyote, a hallucinogenic that also contains mescaline, a substance criminalized by the DEA. The U.S. has allowed Native American tribes to legally use the substance for decades in their religious rituals.

The court review of the church's case remains ongoing.