MADISON, Wis. - Earlier this month, we first reported that a Rastafarian church found a legal loophole to bring marijuana to Madison. Since then, the founder of Lion of Judah House of Rastafari, Jesse Schworck, said about 6,000 people have rolled up to the church to become members. But things are starting to go up in smoke after the city attorney's office looked into the church's practices.
"They are claiming to be a church," said Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Zilavy. "I have not seen any documentation or anything that supports they are, in fact, a church. Even if they are a church, marijuana is illegal in this state. You can't sell it. It can't just be 24/7 and you can smoke weed and that's our religion."
Schwork said Zilavy is giving a blunted argument.
"They don't really have a way to prove that I'm doing the things they don't want me to do. They're accusing me of selling, but we don't sell. They're accusing me of giving it to anyone. We only give it to members," Schworck said.
Schworck said Madison police came to the church at 555 W. Mifflin Street, responding to a noise complaint, and entered the building.
CEASE AND DESIST: A cease and desist letter was issued to the Lion of Judah House of Rastafari after the city says they cannot possess or distribute marijuana legally in Wisconsin, even for religious purposes. But the founders of the church say yes they cannabis. #News3Now pic.twitter.com/ScGduIK2CJ— Jamie Perez (@JamiePerezTV) April 25, 2019
According to the cease-and-desist letter from the office of the city attorney, Madison police "confiscated several jars of marijuana in various forms of drug paraphernalia, including a scale." But Schworck said they only seized the visible marijuana and did not take his scale.
The letter also states police showed up on March 26, which was prior to our story that aired April 1.
No arrests were made and no charges were filed when police came. Schworck filmed the police seizing his property and later told us "they're harassing or intimidating or interfering with our free exercise."
The cease-and-desist letter states "that you have established a church and are operating this 'church' out of 555 W. Mifflin Street. You believe that because you have established this 'church' you are entitled to sell cannabis and marijuana related products, ... This letter is to put you on official notice that selling marijuana, cannabis and THC edibles is not legal either in the City of Madison or in the State of Wisconsin. Even if you are a legitimate 'church', possessing and selling a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance, which these items are, is not legal under Wisconsin State Statute. You must immediately cease and desist from continuing to possess and sell, or offering to sell, these items."
The letter also cites previous court cases that have tried to use freedom of religion as a reason to use drugs during religious practices, but says "even when the action is in accord with one's religious convictions, it is not totally free from legislative restrictions."
The letter claims, "The statuatory exemption for peyote-use by the Native American Church is a very narrow exemption that applies only to the Native American Church. The Native American Church's use of peyote is isolated to specific ceremonial occasions. It is a precisely circumscribed ritual and the peyote itself is an object of worship, ... Additionally, there are overwhelming differences between peyote and marijuana which explains why an accomodation can be made for a religious organization that uses peyote in circumscribed ceremonies."
"It's a discriminatory letter," Schworck said. He added that he doesn't believe Native Americans should be the only ones allowed to use controlled substances for religious practices and stated that marijuana "has never killed anyone like theirs has."
Zilavy believes the letter is not discriminatory and that the church is not sincere in its religious intent.
"They're just fronting the church so they can sell cannabis, edibles and marijuana," Zilavy said.
Zilavy said she hasn't heard from Schworck since the cease-and-desist letter was given to him and she hasn't seen any documents that prove he's legitimate.
Schworck provided us with several documents so far. One is from the state of Wisconsin endorsing him as a nonprofit church, with his purpose statement in writing, saying what he intended to use the building for. Another document from the IRS that shows he's a tax-exempt entity for his religious purposes.
"It's assumed that you're not sincere, but once you prove that, then the burden shifts upon the other party. So, now, they have to do all the proving, not me," Schworck said.
But Zilavy disagrees. She said, "The burden is on them to prove their services are protected and that our regulation of marijuana is infringing on their ability to practice their religion."
When we asked how the church could prove it is using marijuana as a religious sacrament and it is sincere in its beliefs, Zilavy said, "Honestly, I don't know how they would prove it."
Schworck's landlord is aware of the cease-and-desist letter and the notice of public nuisance. Zilavy said that right now, it is up to the landlord to take action.
"She can give him a five-day notice to vacate and if he does not vacate, she can proceed to evict him from the premises," she said.
When we asked what would happen if the landlord does not take those actions, Zilavy said, "Then we will have to evaluate the situation and make a decision."
Zilavy said the city attorney's office could file a public nuisance action in circuit court and eventually get an order to have the business shut down. Schworck said he is ready to file a lawsuit in the coming days.
Another issue that's been brought up is zoning.
Zilavy said the city's zoning administrator, Matt Tucker, visited the building to check if the church was complying with the city's zoning ordinance. Tucker said the space is not approved to be used as a church, but is approved for use as a retail space. Tucker said over the phone that, after visiting, he can see that it is being used as a retail space.
Schworck is selling clothes for purchase in addition to using the space for religious practices.
"Just because we are a church renting out this market, doesn't cause us to lose any rights to take donations or to use sacrament while in the market," Schworck said.
Madison police were not able to comment as this is an ongoing investigation.
Zilavy said the city is navigating this issue carefully as it has no proof if Schworck is or isn't operating an established church and that the city wants to make sure it is "doing it right."
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