A psychedelic church in Detroit is petitioning a federal court to hear a case against it brought by the city, with church officials arguing that the distribution of psilocybin as a religious sacrament is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
The church, known as Soul Tribes International Ministries, was raided by Detroit police in September. The following month, the City of Detroit filed a nuisance claim and obtained a temporary restraining order against the church, which is located inside the Bushnell Congregational Church, and its owner Shaman Shu. Under the terms of the restraining order, the church building was padlocked by the city and Shu was barred from entering the building.
On November 6, Shu, also known as Robert Shumake and Bobby Japhia, filed a motion to have the case heard in federal court. Shu argues that the city’s closure of the church is an “illegal” violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
City Wants Case Returned to State Court
Earlier this week, lawyers for the city filed a petition to return the case against Shu and the church to the Wayne County Circuit Court. The parties in the legal action are now waiting for a judge to rule whether the case will remain in the federal court system.
Soul Tribes considers psilocybin mushrooms to be a religious sacrament and was selling the psychedelic fungi on church property, according to a report from the Metro Times. After a news story from the outlet about the church was published in September, officers with the Detroit Police Department raided the property, seizing more than 99 pounds of what is believed to be psilocybin mushrooms and 120 pounds of “material believed to be marijuana” from the church, according to court documents. Officers also discovered a laboratory on the premises that was allegedly being used to manufacture psychoactive substances.
Officials with the city declined to comment directly on the case because it is still pending. However, Detroit Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallet issued a statement, saying, “Exercising one’s religious freedom does not give them license to break the law.”
“The subject property is poorly masquerading as a church but instead is a distribution center for unlawful controlled substances,” the city’s original complaint against Shu and Soul Tribes reads.
The Subject Property has been the source of numerous complaints from Detroit City Council and neighboring city residents,” the complaint adds.
In 2021, Detroit voters approved a ballot measure supported by Shu and the group Decriminalize Nature Detroit that effectively decriminalized entheogenic plants and fungi. However, the drugs are still illegal under state and federal law.
The city maintains in court documents that the case should be heard by the state court that the complaint against Soul Tribes does not involve federal issues.
“Although psilocybin mushrooms are illegal at the federal and state level, the City can prove all elements of their claim without reference to federal law,” attorneys for the city wrote in court documents. “Further, nuisance law is necessarily regional, the focus is on the harm to surrounding neighbors.”
Lawyers Cite Religious Freedom
Shu was previously represented by attorneys with the law firm Detroit’s Cannabis Counsel. But his lawyers withdrew from the case when Shu filed the motion in federal court without their prior knowledge.
Court documents defending Soul Tribes signed by Cannabis Cannabis Counsel attorney Thomas Lavigne argue that “Soul Tribe’s free exercise of religion was adversely affected by the unlawful search warrant executed by the City of Detroit Police Department and this subsequent nuisance abatement action pursued on behalf of the City.”
“Michigan follows the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which requires a compelling governmental interest and the least restrictive way to achieve that interest,” the lawyers continued in the state court filing. “Every person in Michigan is at liberty to worship God according to the dictates of that person’s own conscience; and the civil and political rights, privileges, and capacities of any person may not be diminished or enlarged on account of a person’s religious belief.”
Shu is now represented by Florida-based attorney George Lake, who is temporarily licensed in the Eastern District Court of Michigan to handle Shu’s case. Lake is reportedly considered an expert in “the free exercise of religion and the sacramental consumption of psychedelics/entheogens.”
“This raises very substantial questions of free exercise of religion and how we define religion,” Lake told the Metro Times about the Soul Tribes case. “Entheogens, scientifically, have been shown to produce primary religious mystical experiences. If a church or person chooses to consume these substances with those types of intentions, is that a protected religious exercise? That’s really where the fundamental question is for me and what ultimately I want the court to address.”
Shu and Lake have announced plans for a $1 billion countersuit against the city, alleging racial and religious discrimination. They also maintain that Soul Tribes suffered $500,000 worth of vandalism and damage, including stolen plumbing and flooding while the building was padlocked by the city. On December 6, Shu removed the padlocks from the building to reopen the building when he discovered the damages.
“When we talk about religious freedom, how do you really put a price tag on having your religious freedom limited even for like one day?” said Lake. “But also there’s some appreciable economic damages that have occurred since the city got that temporary order and took possession of the building.”
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