The Internal Revenue Service has some relatively relaxed rules when it comes to what constitutes a religious organization, a fact that late-night talk show host John Oliver skewered hilariously in 2015 by creating his own church. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act also prevents the government from “substantially burdening a person's exercise of religion.”
But even still, and this may be obvious to most people, religious beliefs don’t allow you to do anything you want.
Apparently no one told Timothy Anderson this.
Anderson was indicted by a grand jury in 2013 and later convicted in 2016 on charges of conspiracy to possess and distribute more than one kilogram of heroin in the St. Louis area, according to the local U.S. attorney’s office. On Wednesday, a three-judge panel from the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court rejected his appeal of the conviction.
In both of his cases, Anderson, who represented himself in court, attempted to use a novel legal defense: He should be allowed to deal heroin because it’s a sincerely held religious belief he has.
According to court filings from Leagle, Anderson argued that, while not formally a member of any religion, he “is a student of Esoteric and Mysticism studies.” Because of this, he said, he had started a non-profit called “K.I.N.O.” and believed that in distributing heroin to “the sick, lost, blind, lame, deaf and dead members of Gods' Kingdom,” he was saving their souls and practicing his religion. Anderson argued that prosecuting him for doing so was a violation of his First Amendment rights.
Rodney W. Sippel, the judge presiding over Anderson’s original case, called the argument “legally frivolous” and rejected it. Raymond Gruender, who wrote the opinion for the Eighth Circuit, went even further, question Anderson’s sincerity.
“We note that a reasonable observer may legitimately question how plausible it is that Anderson exercised a sincerely held religious belief by distributing heroin,” Gruender wrote.
Beyond that, the court also rejected Anderson’s argument by pointing out that he was distributing the heroin to others for non-religious purposes and that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows the government to infringe on people’s religious rights in the “least restrictive means possible” if it can provide a compelling reason to do so, according to Vox.
Ultimately, keeping heroin off the streets constitutes a compelling reason, the court found. And Anderson gave the court no reason to believe he would stop distributing heroin if released, saying he “does not want to compromise his faith in any way.”