Yesterday, on May 17th 2015, a group of five people gathered for a religious ceremony at the Roger Williams National Monument in Providence, Rhode Island. Such a small crowd might have gone unnoticed and unreported, but for the fact that they were members of The Healing Church — and they were smoking weed.
The setting is most appropriate: Roger Williams was an early settler and Protestant Reformer who founded the town of Providence in 1636, after he was exiled from Salem, Massachusetts for preaching unpopular doctrines. Those ideas that were so demonized are sacred to us now, such as the separation of church and state, the abolition of slavery, and the rights of Native Americans. The monument that bears his name also enshrines the values of universal human rights and religious freedom.
So it’s only fitting that The Healing Church would choose it as a place of worship.
The religious ceremony was led by Anne Armstrong, ordained minister since 2002. She led the group in prayer, which included smoking marijuana and annointing members foreheads with cannabis oil. It didn’t take long for park officials to take notice, and soon enough a park ranger came to inquire. They told the church members that they could not violate the Controlled Substances Act on park grounds. Armstrong presented her ordination papers, as well as a permit that she had acquired to hold a church service of 100 people in the park on May 23rd, 2015. Park officials tried telling her that the group needed a permit for their gathering yesterday, but Armstrong defended the groups right to assemble, to pray, and to use cannabis as a religious sacrament, citing a 2010 free speech ruling (Boardley v. U.S. Dept. of Interior) that upholds the right of small groups to gather and express themselves in public parks.
The group then proceeded to smoke and pray for another hour, with being disturbed. On their way out of the park, they were questioned by the police, and that encounter was recorded and posted to YouTube:
As you can see, there were no fines, citations or tickets issued (personal use is decriminalized in Rhode Island; possession of less than an ounce warrants no arrests or jail time). It was a peaceful end to a peaceful gathering, and it sets a major precedent in the move toward cannabis legalization and decriminalization.
It may not seem like a big deal at first glance, but it is. A group of citizens were able to smoke pot on government property and walk away unmolested. Constitutional rights—freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion—triumphed over the federal ban on cannabis and controlled substances. That’s pretty big.
It clearly shows that there is indeed a seismic shift going on in the way the public, the government, and even law enforcement approaches marijuana. If it can happen in Providence, it could happen anywhere.
Cannabis smoking could be coming soon to a park near you 😉
statue of Roger Williams, photo from wikipedia