Six Arroyo Hondo homeowners are appealing Santa Fe County’s decision to allow construction in their community of a church where members drink a hallucinogenic tea as a sacrament.
The appeal objects to the county spending an estimated $400,000 to extend a waterline eight-tenths of a mile — from the Old Las Vegas Highway to the proposed church site near the corner of Arroyo Hondo Road and Brass Horse Road, one mile south of the Santa Fe city limits — and to build a sewage-treatment system there.
Using taxpayer money this way would violate New Mexico’s anti-donation clause as well as the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state, according to the notice of appeal and complaint filed in state District Court on Wednesday on behalf of Robert Seigel, Shirley Seigel, Evergreen Investments Inc., Leslie Turner, Marion Turner and David Gibson.
“While the waterline might have tangential benefits to the area, the expenditure of public funds in an effort to solve a private developer’s problems is blatantly unconstitutional,” said the Arroyo Hondo residents’ lawyer, Joseph Karnes of Sommer Karnes & Associates.
When the Santa Fe County Commission approved a settlement with the congregation’s lawyers last month, it “did not even attempt to explain how the use is compatible with the surrounding residential uses, nor could it,” the complaint says. The decision to allow activities that last until 4 a.m. “in a rural residential neighborhood renders the county’s compatibility requirements meaningless and the decision unlawful.”
Members of the Santa Fe area chapter of O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal (Portuguese for “central beneficial spirit united in plants”), or UDV, also called Nucleo Santa Fe and the Aurora Foundation, consistently have declined public comment about their successful legal battles, which began more than a decade ago.
The religion originated in the late 1950s, when a Brazilian rubber tapper sampled a mixture of two plants that contain the hallucinogen N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, known as hoasca and used by Amazonian natives for centuries. Combining elements of Christianity and often proscribing the use of alcohol, the practice grew quickly in Brazil, which legalized the use of hoasca in 1987.
In 1992, Seagram’s whiskey heir Jeffrey Bronfman began holding UDV services in a yurt near his residence off Brass Horse Road in Arroyo Hondo. On March 21, 1999, federal agents raided Bronfman’s private office at 176 Valley Drive on the north side of Santa Fe, arresting no one but seizing more than 30 gallons of hoasca that had just arrived from Brazil.
The Santa Fe congregation responded the next year by filing a federal lawsuit that sought no specific compensation, but demanded the return of the hoasca, which was likened to a divine entity. The lawsuit said the raid violated the group’s rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the First, Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as international law and treaties with Brazil.
During a hearing in 2001, Bronfman testified the seizure of the tea harmed “the core of my being.”
UDV’s lawyer, Nancy Hollander, brought into court plants purchased at Albuquerque nurseries that contained DMT or other hallucinogenic compounds, called expert witnesses on the nature of UDV practices and argued there are no mental or physical maladies associated with consuming hoasca. She said the intake is so small that it does not cause hallucinations, but only heightens perception.
“If you think of your consciousness as a radio, it turns the volume up,” one member of the church said.
U.S. District Judge James Parker eventually ruled that UDV’s use of hoasca is protected under freedom of religion. But the George W. Bush administration appealed Parker’s ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which stayed Parker’s order. UDV then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which initially continued the stay, then lifted it. In early 2006, the justices unanimously found in favor of the church, clearing the way for the legal use of hoasca.
In 2009, UDV applied to the Santa County Growth Management Department to build 11,000 square feet of buildings on 2.5 acres of Bronfman’s residential property. The project proposal included a 7,100-square-foot temple with room for up to 100 worshippers, a 1,500-square-foot guesthouse for a clergy member and an 800-square-foot greenhouse for growing the plants used to make hoasca. The plan also called for keeping and renovating the existing 706-square-foot yurt.
Many of the 40 people who attended a public hearing on the proposal, mostly Arroyo Hondo residents, were skeptical of the project, citing concerns over increased traffic, dwindling groundwater resources and possible intoxication of hoasca users. County staff recommended approval, but in 2011, the County Commission voted 3-2 to deny the construction as incompatible with the neighborhood. UDV quickly appealed to U.S. District Court, claiming religious discrimination.
After Judge Parker again sided with the church in September, the county began negotiating with the group before mediator Leslie C. Smith, a retired federal magistrate. After an all-day session Nov. 8, the county announced a settlement that would allow UDV to build its temple, but not a greenhouse or new yurt.
The agreement requires UDV to limit the hours and days of services, to keep attendance to no more than 81 people, to hold services only inside the temple or a walled courtyard, to erect a wall to shield its parking lot from the nearest road and not to seek additional structures for at least five years. The county agreed to pay $300,000 to extend the waterline and install a fire hydrant, $80,000 for a wastewater system on the property and more for the church’s legal fees.
Contact Tom Sharpe at 986-3080 or email@example.com.