Man seeks right to give son
peyote during religious ceremony

PEYOTE: the divine cactus
By JAMES PRICHARD, Associated Press

WHITE CLOUD, Mich. (November 23, 2002 10:57 a.m. EST) - A member of an American Indian tribe said the court system is infringing on his religious freedom by prohibiting his 4-year-old son from being given peyote, a hallucinogenic plant, during spiritual ceremonies.

Jonathan Fowler, 35, of Traverse City, testified about his son Friday at a Newaygo County Family Court hearing stemming from a custody dispute with his ex-wife, Kristin Hanslovsky, 31, of Montague.

Fowler, a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, attends an Indian church where peyote use is considered a sacrament. He credits peyote with helping him to overcome alcoholism and to "come into contact with God as I know him."

He wants to be able to give peyote to his son during his church's religious services. Hanslovsky objects, saying it could harm the child.

The couple split up soon after their son was born in 1998. In October 2000, a judge granted Fowler custody of his son but prohibited him from giving peyote to the child.

Fowler challenged that portion of the decision in the Michigan Court of Appeals, which returned the case to the lower court for further testimony.

Peyote, a small, bitter-tasting cactus that grows in southern Texas and northern Mexico, has been a part of Indian culture for thousands of years. Those who ingest the plant believe it provides enlightenment and other spiritual and physical benefits.

The plant's active chemical ingredient is mescaline, a hallucinogen. The U.S. criminal code usually classifies peyote as a controlled substance, and a person caught with more than 4 ounces faces the possibility of a 20-year prison sentence.

But in 1994, Congress carved out exemptions for "the practice of a traditional Indian religion" by members of federally recognized tribes.

Fowler is a member of the Native American Church of the Morning Star. The Michigan chapter of the church combines elements of Christianity with Indian practices that center on the ritual use of peyote.

During church ceremonies, peyote is distributed as a tea or a greenish paste.

Fowler has said he wants to be allowed rub some of the tea on his son's forehead. Under cross-examination Friday by Hanslovsky's lawyer, Martin Holmes, Fowler said he wants to leave it up to his child to decide when to ingest the peyote.

"If he says next week that he feels ready to take it, then OK," Fowler said.

Testifying on Fowler's behalf was John H. Halpern, a psychiatrist and researcher at Harvard Medical School who is an expert on peyote and other hallucinogens.

Halpern said he has found no evidence of any child or adult being harmed by it in Indian religious ceremonies. He also questioned the court's decision to take up the matter, saying the federal government has affirmed such use of peyote.

"We have to protect these people's traditions and ways," Halpern said.

Under cross-examination, Holmes asked the researcher if there is evidence showing peyote users, particularly young children, face no risks. Halpern responded that too much of anything is bad, whether it's peyote or Tylenol.

Hanslovsky will get a chance to present her case at a hearing Dec. 27.


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