Dan Lund, Associated Press

James Mooney, right, and Linda Mooney appear in court in 2000. The Mooneys were accused of distributing peyote during ceremonies at their church.
Members of a Utah County American Indian church, whatever their race, can continue to use peyote as part of their religious ceremonies without fear of state prosecution, the Utah Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The unanimous decision applies to all 200 members of the Oklevueha Earth Walks Native American Church and may result in the complete dismissal of criminal charges against the church’s founder, James “Flaming Eagle” Mooney.

“The bona fide religious use of peyote cannot serve as the basis for prosecuting members of the Native American Church under state law,” Justice Jill Parrish wrote in Tuesday’s opinion.

Mooney’s attorney, Kathryn Collard, praised the ruling as a victory for religious freedom that affects all Utahns, not just members of Mooney’s congregation.

“For the rest of us, what it confirms is that individuals can still rely on the courts and their state and federal constitutional rights to protect them from this incredible power of the state. And that is a wonderful thing,” Collard said. “I think it should make all of us who take these rights for granted think about how in every age people have to struggle to preserve these fundamental rights.”

Mooney was unavailable for comment Tuesday, but Collard said he is grateful for the Supreme Court’s decision.

“He just expressed to me what a great thing it is that the court protected the religious diversity that is the foundation of our country and our state,” Collard said. “He just could not be happier. It’s been a very long struggle for them.”

Mooney and his wife, Linda, were arrested in November 2000 and charged with 10 first-degree felony counts of operating a controlled substance criminal enterprise and one count of second-degree felony racketeering for allegedly distributing peyote to non-Indians.

Collard said she will revive a motion to dismiss all charges against the Mooneys, which 4th District Court Judge Gary Stott rejected in October 2001 when he ruled that the exception does not apply to any race other than American Indians

Though Tuesday’s opinion overturns Stott’s ruling, Assistant Attorney General Kris Leonard said it may still be possible for the case to go forward.

“There are still issues that haven’t been decided below that may yet allow prosecution of the case,” she said.

The court’s ruling holds true only for members of a valid Native American Church, Leonard said, and there has been no investigation into the validity of Mooney’s church.

For the purposes of its decision, the Supreme Court assumed Mooney’s representations, she said.

At issue in the case was an exemption in the Federal Controlled Substance Act that allows the use of peyote in religious ceremonies. The exception was enacted by the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, now known as the Drug Enforcement Administration, after peyote was classified as a controlled substance in 1970.

The state Attorney General’s Office argued on appeal that the exemption has never been incorporated into state laws controlling drug use. Additionally, the state argued, the exemption does not apply to non-Indian members of the Native American Church.

The Supreme Court rejected each argument Tuesday, saying the state statute must be interpreted to include the exemption to avoid a conflict between state and federal law and to protect the Mooneys’ constitutional rights. Additionally, the court noted, the exemption makes no mention of tribal status as a requirement for immunity from prosecution

“The term ‘members’ in the exemption clearly refers to members of the ‘Native American Church’ — not to members of federally recognized tribes,” the opinion states. “Therefore, so long as their church is part of the ‘Native American Church,’ the Mooneys may not be prosecuted for using peyote in bona fide religious ceremonies.”

Mooney founded the Oklevueha Earth Walks Native American Church in 1997 in Benjamin, a rural community west of Spanish Fork. The Native American Church, which was established in 1918 in Oklahoma, operates throughout the United States and Canada. Each chapter operates autonomously and sets its own rules.