First Church of Cannabis In Indiana Recognized By IRS As Tax Exempt

Marijuana has had a lot of legal victories in the US in the past few years, and now it can add a religious one to its score card. The First Church of Cannabis in Indiana has been given tax exempt status by the IRS. Which is only going to make it harder for the state to maintain that the church's pro-pot beliefs and practices aren't protected by the state's infamous religious freedom law.

The First Church of Cannabis was first founded after the state of Indiana passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a law which many claimed was meant not to protect religious people, but to legalize discrimination against LGBT people, sparking nationwide backlash. Some people in the state, however, were quick to pick up on the fact that the law could have plenty of other implications, too, especially for those who enjoy getting partaking in marijuana, which the First Church of Cannabis now considers a religious sacrament.

The church is not just a clever way to get around marijuana laws, though, founder Bill Levin says. Levin told Huffington Post that the church is similar in many ways to Rastafarianism, a religious movement that began in Jamaica in the 1930s and that also embraces marijuana as a sacrament; the main difference is that the First Church of Cannabis does not have a main deity. According to the church's Facebook page, the church expects members, or "cannabitarians," to do things such as "[treat] everyone with Love as an equal," "not intentionally hurt anything," and "get nature into your daily routine."

The church, which received approval for their request for tax exempt status less than 30 days after filing with the IRS, is still fundraising and looking for a worship space; they hope to have their first services on July 1st, the day Indiana's religious freedom law goes into effect.

Getting designated as tax exempt by the IRS is a big deal, and not just because it makes donations to the organization tax deductible and limits the extent to which the IRS can audit. As many scholars on the subject have learned over the years, it's very difficult to determine what the exact definition of a religion is, and thus the U.S. government is not really in the habit of trying to declare which groups do and don't qualify.

The one exception to this is the IRS. Because naturally, if you're going to grant religions special tax benefits, the people who handle taxes need to know what is and is not a religion. Getting recognized by the IRS as qualifying for religious tax exempt status is therefore a major boost to the First Church of Cannabis's claim to be a legitimate religion.

So what will this mean in the long run? Well, only time will tell. After all, marijuana possession and use are still illegal in Indiana. But as one Indiana political commentator told RawStory, if the church can make a compelling case that their marijuana use is part of their religion, they have a good chance at not facing legal penalties for it.

Something tells me that's not what the authors of the law had in mind when they wrote it, but life is funny that way. And with any luck, this decision will also help other, more established groups for whom marijuana is sacred also get recognition as well.