Faith and marijuana in Jurupa Valley is the subject of our next story. The Vault Church of Open Faith is unique among Inland Empire churches - it's also a marijuana dispensary. Or, it was, until the city of Jurupa Valley shut it down. KVCR's Benjamin Purper attended services, and has this story.
MERCY: “Alright. Thank you guys for all coming today. My name’s Mercy…”
At the Vault Church of Open Faith, the day’s service starts off like any other church experience. After a brief introduction from the Minister Mercy, churchgoers are encouraged to get up and introduce themselves to five new people.
After that, it’s time for sacrament. But this sacrament isn’t your ordinary bread and wine.
MERCY: “I’m gonna ask some of the ministers to please come help with these bowls, and that way we can help light ‘em for people. So, come through y’all.”
The Vault Church of Open Faith is a cannabis-based ministry – or, it was. In mid-September, a task force with the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office raided the church for being an illegal marijuana dispensary. They seized 100 pounds of cannabis grow and about 75,000 in cash.
MERCY: “If you’re not aware, the Vault Church, as a church, is now officially done. It’s officially done.”
The Vault was a real church – at least in the sense that they had weekly mass, and Bible study during the week. But they also operated a 24-hour marijuana dispensary where anyone over the age of 21 could buy “sacrament.”
That’s a problem in the city of Jurupa Valley, which bans recreational marijuana dispensaries. By shutting down the Vault, the city says it’s simply closing down an unlicensed, illegal dispensary – while leaders at the Vault say their religious liberty is being violated.
MERCY: “Within Christianity, it’s difficult for people to accept what we’re doing here. But, cannabis is known for bringing communities together, throughout religion, throughout society, throughout many different cultures.”
They cite a law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which protects certain religious practices from government interference. But constitutional scholar Art Svenson says that law only applies to the federal government – it doesn’t apply to states who haven’t passed their own version of the bill.
SVENSON: “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act would require that religion be excused from the neutral law unless government could show a compelling reason, narrowly tailored, why religion shouldn't be exempted. But that law doesn't apply in California.”
But even if some version of the law were to be passed in California, Svenson isn’t sure it would help the Vault. The church was operating a commercial dispensary in a city where recreational marijuana is still banned. Religious freedom doesn’t cover that.
SVENSON: “I think this church is going to have a difficult time winning this thing on First Amendment grounds.”
The church may be done, but the church-goers aren’t. They describe their cannabis-based ministry as a movement – one that’s far from over.
MERCY: “The movement still goes. The movement keeps on. And even just a small thing by you, being here is impacting other people. Because look around here. We’re a family. Everything that you do impacts people.”
Mercy says the Vault may team up with other like-minded churches in the area. Until then, he urges his parishioners not to give up hope.
MERCY: When we’re partaking in Sacrament, not only are we being community together, but we’re also being connected to God as well. And that is such a beautiful thing.”