The saga of a downtown Madison Rastafarian church that used to hand out cannabis for cash goes on, even after a court ruled against them on Wednesday in an eviction case.
“We’re here now,” said Lion of Judah Church, House of Rastafari founder Jesse Schworck on Thursday from the former grocery store and laundromat at 555 W. Mifflin St.
Despite the ruling, Schworck thinks he can do some maneuvering to stay put.
“Now we can appeal it or we can do some things to delay it, depending on how long we’re in a predicament,” he said.
His lawyer, Anthony Delyea, sees it differently.
“There are things that he could do, but I’m not optimistic about it,” he said.
The church, which opened in March, was swarmed by local police in an early morning raid on May 29 after three months of dispensing cannabis products for donations. Schworck said in its short stay, the church signed up about 20,000 members.
Schworck, 39, and co-founder Dylan Bangert, 24, were arrested and subsequently charged with multiple drug crimes.
In June, the building’s owner, Charanjeet Kaur, filed an eviction claim against Schworck and Bangert, and on Wednesday Dane County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Ehlke cleared the way for Kaur to give the men the boot.
Aside from the criminal charges and the eviction, the church is enmeshed in federal court.
Schworck is trying to retrieve nearly $50,000 seized after the raid and held by the U.S. Department of Justice. He said the feds cleaned out the church’s bank account with about $40,000 and confiscated about $9,000 in cash that was on the church premises.
“It was mostly the money we had,” he said.
In April, Schworck lodged a complaint that’s still working its way through federal court alleging that the city violated the church’s religious freedom by denying it sacramental cannabis.
Initially skeptical, Delyea thinks it’s a good argument. The government has already granted religious exemptions to certain groups for drug use, most notably an allowance for the Native American Church to use peyote. And Wisconsin allows Catholic inmates in Wisconsin institutions to imbibe sacramental wine, he said, and forbidding sacramental cannabis smacks of favoring one religion over another.
He added that the government needs to show a compelling interest in denying a religious exemption for controlled substances, and with Wisconsin soon to be surrounded by states with legal recreational pot, and political support for legal marijuana widespread and growing, that’s going to be a stretch.
“Right now, if somebody went to the church and they wanted to go get marijuana, they don’t have to go to Colorado,” he said. “They can zip up 168 miles or something like that to Michigan. And, on Jan. 1, they can go to Illinois, 54.9 miles.”
And since the FDA recently approved a THC derivative for medical use, it’s only a matter of time before the agency removes THC as a Schedule 1 narcotic, which designates drugs as devoid of medical value and at a high risk for abuse.
“So what is the state’s compelling interest to stop these guys from practicing their religion?” he said.
He said the arguments in federal court are also going to bolster Schworck and Bangert’s defense in their criminal cases in state court.
“Wisconsin’s Constitution is a powerful statement for freedom of religion,” he said. “It’s a lot stronger than the U.S. Constitution is.”
Delyea said the House of Judah is a good test case for marijuana laws in the state because Schworck and Bangert never tried to hide the fact that they were dispensing cannabis.
“These guys didn’t just get caught,” he said. “They made it a point that everybody knew that they were there and what they were doing. They genuinely believe that what they were doing should be legal.”
An additional argument, he said, is the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a law passed in 2000 that among other things blocks municipalities from using zoning and building codes to treat religious groups unfairly.
The law was enacted “so cities can’t just make zoning that applies to churches they don’t like,” Delyea said.
But Madison did just that, he said, when it pressured the landlord to pursue an eviction on the basis of the building’s designated use for mercantile purposes, rather than religious.
“So they have a zoning case, they have a state court case, they have a federal case, they have a federal forfeiture, and they have the eviction,” Delyea said. “It’s like a full court press, and they seize all their money so that it’s hard for them to pay attorneys and get a level playing field.”
After the raid, the church closed for a time, but reopened in July after another Dane County judge lifted a bail provision barring the men from being in the 500 block of West Mifflin Street, where the church is located. Schworck said the church has been in operation ever since, despite the city’s “no occupancy” posting in July due to disrepair and operational violations.
The reopened church doesn’t openly dispense cannabis.
“We’re just keeping everything low-key right now,” Schworck said.
Instead, Schworck is handing out other merchandise for donations.
“We’ve been getting some donations from other stuff, too,” he said. “Like we’ve got bikes we’ve been dealing with lately. We’ve got a whole bunch of bikes. Some people have been coming by, you know, like local students that need a bike, donating 30, 40, 50 bucks.”
He said he gets “a lot” of the bikes from St. Vincent de Paul's Dig & Save, Goodwill or the Bicycle Recycle.
He said he’s earning a living as an employee of the church and Bangert is working as an “independent contractor.”
But the amount of money coming in isn’t what it used to be.
“You can imagine,” he said.