Arizona's law protecting religious freedom does not apply to a man convicted of smoking marijuana while driving, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday. The ruling came in Arizona v. Hardesty.
In that case, Daniel Hardesty was arrested while driving in Yavapai County and charged with marijuana possession. At trial, he testified that he was a member of the Church of Cognizance, an Arizona-based religion that says it embraces neo-Zoroastrian tenets and uses marijuana for spiritual enlightenment. He argued that Arizona's 1999 law limiting the state's ability to "burden the exercise of religion" meant he could not be prosecuted because he was exercising his religious beliefs.
The trial judge disagreed, and Hardesty was convicted. He appealed to the state Supreme Court, and has now lost there, too. In a unanimous opinion, the justices held that while the state religious freedom law mandates restrictions on religious practices only if it shows a compelling interest and that the restrictions must be the "least restrictive means of furthering that interest," the state does have a compelling interest in regulating marijuana use and Hardesty's claim that the Church of Cognizance allows him to use marijuana anywhere or any time, including driving, made it clear that the "least restrictive means" was an outright ban on marijuana.
Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch, who authored the opinion, made a distinction between federal laws that allow Native American Church members to use peyote without fear of prosecution under state law and the religious freedom claim made by Hardesty. There was an "obvious difference" between the two situations, Berch said. "Members of the Native American Church assert only the religious right to use peyote in limited sacramental rights. Hardesty asserts the right to use marijuana whenever he pleases, including while driving," she wrote.
Monday's ruling was the second defeat in as many years for the church. Church founders Dan and Mary Quaintance were convicted of marijuana possession and conspiracy to distribute marijuana after being stopped with 172 pounds of pot in New Mexico. A federal judge in New Mexico rejected their religious freedom arguments. Dan Quaintance is currently serving a five year prison sentence, and Mary Quaintance is doing two to three years.