The city of Newport Beach, California, has filed suit against a church for allegedly operating an illegal pot shop, but the church claims its use of marijuana is a form of religious expression, KCBS-TV reported.
Newport Beach police conducted an undercover operation and inspection of the Church of the Holy Grail earlier this year and found evidence that it was operating a marijuana dispensary without a state license and in violation of "numerous City laws," according to the suit filed June 25.
The church said its marijuana business is not illegal, but rather a form of religious expression, according to court documents.
The city is seeking several injunctions and civil penalties against the organization.
What's the story?
The city of Newport has accused the the church of violating federal, state, and local laws by unlawfully selling, serving, storing, keeping, or giving away marijuana, according to the court documents.
Newport authorities were first alerted to the alleged illegal dispensary in January, which led to the undercover inspection and operation on Feb. 6.
The city issued an administration citation that advised the group to cease its operations. Cristian L. Peirano, an attorney for Holy Grail, responded on the same day to the city's citation.
"In this letter, Holy Grail asserts, inter alia, that its use of marijuana is a lawful exercise of religion," Peirano wrote in response, according to the court documents. Peirano did not respond to KCBS' request for comment Sunday.
A follow-up undercover inspection found the Holy Grail is still operating its dispensary.
What does the law say?
Lou Shapiro, an attorney and legal commentator, said that "religion cannot be used to circumvent municipality laws,” according to KCBS.
“The government is not restricting people from exercising their religion,” Shapiro said. “Rather, they are saying you can practice religion, but it has to be within the confines of the law.”
Shapiro is not involved with the case.
A hearing is set for later this month.