updated 2/21/2006 1:11:21 PM ET 2006-02-21T18:11:21

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that a small congregation in New Mexico may use hallucinogenic tea as part of a four-hour ritual intended to connect with God.

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Justices, in their first religious freedom decision under Chief Justice John Roberts, moved decisively to keep the government out of a church’s religious practice. Federal drug agents should have been barred from confiscating the hoasca tea of the Brazil-based church, Roberts wrote in the decision.

The tea, which contains an illegal drug known as DMT, is considered sacred to members of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal, which has a blend of Christian beliefs and South American traditions. Members believe they can understand God only by drinking the tea, which is consumed twice a month at four-hour ceremonies.

New Justice Samuel Alito did not take part in the case, which was argued last fall before Justice Sandra Day O’Connor before her retirement. Alito was on the bench for the first time on Tuesday.

Roberts said that the Bush administration had not met its burden under a federal religious freedom law to show that it could ban “the sect’s sincere religious practice.”

The chief justice had also been skeptical of the government’s position in the case last fall, suggesting that the administration was demanding too much, a “zero tolerance approach.”

The Bush administration had argued that the drug in the tea not only violates a federal narcotics law, but a treaty in which the United States promised to block the importation of drugs including dimethyltryptamine, also known as DMT.

“The government did not even submit evidence addressing the international consequences of granting an exemption for the (church),” Roberts wrote.

The justices sent the case back to a federal appeals court, which could consider more evidence.

Roberts, writing his second opinion since joining the court, said that religious freedom cases can be difficult “but Congress has determined that courts should strike sensible balances.”

The case is Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, 04-1084.

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