A Des Moines-based church that uses a hallucinogenic drug in religious ceremonies is challenging the Internal Revenue Service’s decision to deny it the tax exemption.
According to the lawsuit, recently filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the Iowaska Church of Healing was established in Iowa as a non-profit corporation in September 2018.
Company records indicate that the church is headed by Admir Dado Kantarevic, along with Billy Benskin and Merzuk Ramic, and its official location is Kantarevic’s house, located at 4114 27e St., Des Moines. The lawsuit refers to the church having 20 members at one time.
The teachings of the church are built around the use of ayahuasca, which is brewed from the leaves of shrubs and vines found in the Amazon. The elements of these plants have powerful hallucinogenic properties, which the church says can be used to awaken the “third eye” of its followers.
The third eye is described by the church on its website as “an organ that no one talks about in school or in private” and which is “secretly protected at the geometric center of your skull.”
In court records, the church said that in January 2019, it filed with the IRS for tax-exempt status and was denied. With the help of the office of US Senator Chuck Grassley, the lawsuit alleges, the appeal process to the IRS was expedited and an appeal conference was held in April of this year.
A final determination letter denying tax-exempt status was issued in June this year, declaring that the church’s use of the “Ayahuasca sacrament” in its religious practices was illegal, according to the lawsuit.
In court records, the church acknowledges that under federal Controlled Substances Act an ingredient in ayahuasca called dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, is a Schedule I drug and a hallucinogenic alkaloid, and that it there is no legal exemption allowing its use in religious ceremonies.
According to the church, however, the IRS decision to withhold tax-exempt status “directly contradicts” an earlier decision of the United States Supreme Court and also violates the 1993 Restoration of Religious Freedom Act. .
The case that has been heard by the Supreme Court concerns another church whose members have communed by drinking ayahuasca in the form of a tea infused from plants found in the Amazon rainforest. After U.S. Customs seized a shipment of ayahuasca that was being shipped to the church, federal authorities threatened criminal charges and the church took legal action for an injunction.
The government recognized that while the sacramental use of ayahuasca was an exercise of religion, the sacramental use of the substance was still prohibited by law. The Supreme Court ruled that the government’s actions violated the Restoration of Religious Freedom Act and upheld a lower court’s preliminary injunction in favor of the church.
According to the lawsuit, the IRS said the church in Des Moines was formed for an illegal purpose – the distribution of a controlled substance.
The Iowaska Church of Healing disputes this and says its mission is to help individuals “achieve healing of mind, body and spirit through the sacred sacrament of Ayahuasca in accordance with the guidelines of the traditions. and the indigenous cultural values of North and South America ”.
Church leader convicted in high-profile drug case
The lawsuit says ayahuasca is consumed as tea during religious ceremonies in the church and that its services “also involve prayers, purifications and spiritual music.” The basis of its doctrine emanates from the Ayahuasca Manifesto, a document that details the role of ayahuasca in the expansion of consciousness, according to the church.
In February 2019, the church filed an application with the Drug Enforcement Administration, seeking a religious exemption from the Controlled Substance Act. To date, the church alleges that the DEA has provided no “substantial response” to the request, despite repeated follow-up requests, including one sent by Grassley’s office.
The IRS has yet to file a response to the lawsuit.
Court records indicate that in December 2005, Kantarevic, then a personal trainer, was convicted of possession of anabolic steroids and sentenced to one year of probation. He was charged in connection with a federal investigation into the illegal importation of steroids for bodybuilders.
In his written guilty plea, Kantarevic admitted to receiving over 3,500 grams of anabolic steroids in the mail to Des Moines, from Thailand and California, intending to retain some of the drugs and send the rest to others.
As part of his plea, he admitted that he understood that the drugs were from Milos Sarcev and were to be paid for by Dennis James.
At the time, Sarcev and James were internationally renowned competitive bodybuilders. Sarcev has twice won the title of Mr. Yugoslavia and James was one of the top contenders in the 2004 Mr. Universe competition.
The two then pleaded guilty to conspiring to possess anabolic steroids.