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News: 12/01/2015

Native American Church in Kenwood sues county

Sign for Native American Church
In August, a sign was put up in the driveway of a property on Lawndale Road announcing that it was the location of a new branch of the Native American Church.
A church in Kenwood that makes use of marijuana and peyote in their religious practices has filed a federal lawsuit against Sonoma County and the Sheriff’s Department, charging civil rights violations in connection with a raid by law enforcement that confiscated and destroyed hundreds of marijuana plants.

The Utah-based Oklevueha Native American Church (ONAC) set up a branch on a property at 1142 Lawndale Road earlier this year, putting up a sign to indicate their presence to county officials.

On Sept. 14, sheriff’s deputies entered the property, seized over 600 marijuana plants and arrested 38-year-old Kenwood resident Saul Arriola Garcia for marijuana cultivation and possession of marijuana for sale. Garcia is listed as the president of the ONAC Valley of the Moon branch.

According to a representative with the office of the church’s attorney, Garcia has not yet been charged by the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office.

The raid, say church lawyers, was illegal and violated laws protecting Native American religious practices.

“Deputies were told before destroying sacramental plants and arresting a church member that Native American ceremonies including those using peyote, marijuana and other plants are protected by state and federal law,” said church attorney Matt Pappas.

In addition to charging violations of religious rights, the lawsuit, filed Nov. 23 in federal court in San Francisco, also claims that the police action was conducted without a proper warrant.

“The County has not yet been served with the lawsuit or had an opportunity to review the claims,” said Sonoma County Counsel Bruce Goldstein. “The Sheriff’s Office is sensitive in addressing sovereign rights of tribes and there is not a recognized Indian tribal group currently existing in Kenwood.”

The church location on Lawndale Road is also under abatement proceedings from county code enforcement officials. The county has ordered the church to stop activities until they get a use permit to operate as a church. Code enforcement has also told the property owner that the church sign violates county rules.

According to the lawsuit, the church is now closed and, “unable to operate based on fear of continuing enforcement actions” by the county, and that the county is using its zoning laws “arbitrarily and capriciously” to prevent church members from participating in religious ceremonies.

The lawsuit seeks monetary damages from the county, as well as an injunction to prevent another raid, and to stop the county from closing the church down.

The parties are due to appear in federal court for a case management conference on Feb. 24.

ONAC was first established in 1997, and now has over 200 branches in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, South America and Africa. Since its inception, according to the lawsuit, ONAC, “has followed traditional Native American religious ceremonies including those of the indigenous people and tribes with which it is affiliated.”

Anyone can belong to the church regardless of race.

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