How Alaska court dealt with sincerity of religious belief

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Courts rarely pass judgment on whether individuals’ religious beliefs are sincere, but that’s exactly what the Alaska Court of Appeals did in Lineker v. State of Alaska Jan. 20 when it denied the religious-freedom claims of a couple who douse themselves in extracted marijuana liquid as part of a purported religious ritual.

In 2003, Michael and Maria Lineker were charged under Alaska law with substance-possession after police discovered 50 marijuana plants hidden in their home. In their defense, the couple claimed their religion compelled them to anoint themselves with a mixture of marijuana extract and olive oil.

To determine whether to accommodate religious claims for exemption from government laws or policies that apply generally to everyone (such as drug laws), courts have frequently applied a test that asks:

  • Whether the religious belief is sincere.
  • Whether the government’s policy substantially burdens the individual’s ability to practice his religion.
  • Whether the government’s policy advances a “compelling state interest.”
  • Whether that interest can be satisfied in a way least restrictive to the religious claim.

After the U.S. Supreme Court weakened the application of the compelling-state-interest test in 1990, Congress wrote the test into law in the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. RFRA prohibits the federal government from curtailing a person’s religious freedom unless it can prove that “the burden to the person represents the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling interest.” The Supreme Court upheld the application of RFRA to the federal government in its unanimous 2006 decision Gonzales v. O Centro.

The RFRA test, as upheld in Gonzalez, would seem to be the likely one for the Alaska trial court to have applied in deciding the Lineker case. But because of a 1997 Supreme Court ruling that says the RFRA does not apply to the states, the court was unable to do so.

Instead, the trial court decided to apply its state's own test, set forth in Frank v. Alaska, similar in many ways to the federal one. Under the state test, before the state needs to meet its compelling-interest requirement, the individual who claims his free exercise of religion has been infringed must establish that his religious beliefs are sincere.

Applying the Frank test to the Linekers’ claims, the trial judge found himself in the undesirable posture of having to evaluate religious beliefs that could, at the most generous, be called unorthodox.  He simply opted to assume “for the sake of argument” that the Linekers’ religious beliefs were sincere, and he upheld their indictment on the grounds that Alaska has a compelling interest in enforcing its drug laws. 

On review, however, an appellate panel in 2006 questioned the trial judge’s conclusion. “It seems clear,” the panel wrote, “that the government cannot meet its burden of demonstrating a compelling state interest simply by alleging its obvious interest in enforcing its drug laws.”

The expected course of action would have been for the appellate panel to remand the case in order to give the state a chance to show its interest would suffer by granting an exemption for the Linekers. However, perhaps fearing that the state would be unable to meet its burden or perhaps smelling something foul in the marijuana-juice-and-olive-oil defense, the 2006 appellate panel took the additional, rare step of ordering the trial judge to assess whether sincere religious convictions were actually involved. The trial court “should conduct an evidentiary hearing,” the panel said, “at which the Linekers should be given an opportunity to establish that their conduct was based on a sincere religious belief.”

At that hearing, Michael Lineker “testified that his religion involved the practice of cleansing and anointment by liquid extracted from marijuana plants” and that “approximately one gallon of liquid was the ideal amount for anointment,” according to court papers from the Jan. 20 ruling. He said his faith required him to “cover himself in the liquid repeatedly until it was all absorbed.” And Maria Lineker “described the anointment as spiritually fulfilling but also ‘a little messy.’ ”

Unconvinced, the trial judge ruled that the couple “conceived this set of beliefs in order to have access to an illegal drug” and that Michael Lineker “left the court with a firm conviction that as he was testifying he was making it up as he went along.”

The Linekers once again appealed to the state’s appellate court, where a three-judge panel ruled it had no reason to doubt the trial judge’s assessment of the couple’s sincerity.

Safeguarding religious liberty often comes down to analyzing facts closely on a case-by-case basis and drawing lines and making distinctions. Though it’s preferable for courts to try to keep faith off the witness stand by accepting individuals' stipulations as to the sincerity of their religious beliefs, as was the case in Gonzales, sometimes interpreting the law means having to traipse through a little snake—or marijuana—oil.

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