The First Church of Cannabis is inextricably linked to Mike Pence. The Indianapolis-based group, which holds services every Wednesday, came into being because of a law signed by the then-governor in 2015: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which granted religious freedom rights to corporations and allowed the exercise of religion as a defense in legal proceedings and was widely criticized for being discriminatory and “anti-gay,” as seen in how it inspired one pizza parlor to preemptively refuse service to any hypothetical same-sex couples who might have requested wedding catering.
Bill Levin, who seems to be a bonafide stoner but also a bit of a profit-seeker, saw an opportunity. He launched the First Church of Cannabis, a hippie-ish institution promoting “love,” “compassion,” and smoking weed. The church tried to incorporate marijuana into its services, but local law enforcement wasn’t having it, so Levin filed a lawsuit against the state of Indiana and city of Indianapolis in July 2015, arguing that laws against possession of marijuana directly violated its religious beliefs which should be protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Attempts to argue a religious exemption for marijuana have not gone well in the past, but Levin is optimistic about his chances under Indiana’s law. The case is still ongoing, with the next hearing scheduled for October.
Pence was reportedly the main influence behind the executive order on religious freedom signed by President Donald Trump today, which permits religious exemptions to Obamacare requirements around providing contraceptives. While the executive order was not as broad as an earlier leaked draft, it still gives weight to the idea that religious beliefs are a valid reason to defy the law.
Given the parallels, we decided to catch up with Bill Levin, the founder and “Grand Poohbah” of The First Church of Cannabis, to get his opinion on the new executive order and check in on his fight for religious freedom.
The Outline: Are you aware of the current religious freedom executive order that’s being bandied about?
Bill Levin: Yeah. [laughs] It made me laugh my ass off. I laughed, I laughed very hard. God works in mysterious ways, is all I got to say. I’m smiling, I’m looking forward to the judge’s outcome on this. It’s gonna be interesting.
You have to be familiar with Mike Pence.
When Mike ran for office, that same year I was running for office. So, you know, I’d see Mikey backstage at the various political gatherings — nice guy, got good hair, got a cute little wife. Doesn’t go anywhere without the wife. But yeah, Mike’s got great hair.
Good to know! I don’t know if I’d ever looked at him in that light.
Well. Had to say something nice, and damn he has fine hair. Matter of fact, I think both the President and the Vice President have good manes. Definitely well worth discussing.
Does this new executive order seem like something the Mike Pence you know would agree with?
Wouldn’t have to agree with it. He wrote it, it’s just the interpretation of what he wrote. I’m sure he didn’t mean that he was writing a perfect platform for our church, but he’s writing a perfect platform for a lot of people. It just depends on how you view it.
So kind of like the original law that allowed the formation of the church in the first place.
Yeah. [long pause] I don’t always understand Mikey; I don’t understand what drives him.
What’s the status of the marijuana possession lawsuit filed against Indiana?
Yeah, we’ve done all our depositions, had a great time, had our professional witnesses… do all the professional witness kind of stuff. The final hearing will be in October of this year. We’ll know by October, if not sooner. This is strictly left up to the judge. I don’t know what more we have to answer, because the questions haven’t been asked.
“It made me laugh my ass off.”
There’s a set formula for doing these kind of things, and it’s all been plotted out, and we’ve done everything in a timely manner, and we look good… We look damn good. I feel like a seven-year-old kid waiting for Santa to come in Christmas, you know? “Is it October yet? Is it October yet? Is it October yet?” No, it’s not October yet. So, I’m sitting around waiting for the court hearing as much as everybody else.
This is whether you could use weed legally, yes? As a religious thing.
Legally allowed to use it as a sacrament, yeah.
One final question… What’s your service going to be about tonight?
I was toying with friendship, and I was toying with Murphy’s Law. I’ve done Murphy’s Law a couple times — we’re just getting out of Mercury in retrograde, so, it’s been a brutal three or four weeks there. Have you had any computers or car trouble in the last three weeks?
I did have to replace a computer.
In the last three weeks?
OK; Google “Mercury in retrograde” and realize that this goes on once or twice a year. It’s the cosmic trickster, and it screws up communications, it screws up cars, it screws up toasters, it screws up things that function.
But if you go read it, you’ll get a kick out of it, and you’ll start paying attention to it the rest of your life, and you’ll go, “That nut from the church told me this.” So, yeah, go Google “Mercury in retrograde.” You’ll have fun with that.
I’ll have to do that. Thanks, Bill.
Cool, no problem; I love you. These are the little benefits in life you can’t get from school.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.