Originally published in 2001 under the title ‘To an Unknown God: Religious Freedom on Trial’ by St. Martin’s Press, this 2009 paperback edition is titled ‘Peyote Vs. The State: Religious Freedom on Trial’ and is published by the University of Oklahoma Press. The author, Garrett Epps, has also written ‘The Floating Island: A Tale of Washington’ (1985) and ‘The Shad Treatment’ (1997). A former reporter for the Washington Post, Epps is Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore.
Ostensibly, this book is the story of a trial that took place, at various legislative and judicial levels, between 1984 and the early 1990s and that was known, in the language of law, as Employment Division Vs. Smith. However, Garrett Epps has written a richly biographical work that examines the lives of the two main protagonists: Al Smith and Dave Frohnmayer. The former is a Native American who was sacked, and was refused his benefits, for having partaken of the cactus Peyote, within a Native American Church ceremony. The latter was the Attorney General for the State of Oregon, and whose job it was to uphold the state’s position as the trial is twice brought before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Al Smith, born in 1919, came from the Klamath tribe of southern Oregon. His life story is, in many respects, a sad one in reference to his heritage, which saw him sent away like many young Native Americans to a boarding school, the displacement of his tribe, their culture, values and traditions. After school he was drafted into the army, where he was diagnosed as an alcoholic, and spent time in a federal prison for drinking on duty. He struggled for some time until he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and followed their stringent, higher power, total abstinence, twelve steps. Simultaneously he was rediscovering his roots as a Native American and started working as a councillor for other recovering alcoholics.
Dave Frohnmayer was a moderate Republican, a family man, who rose up to prominence in the Oregon State law system, eventually becoming Attorney General. His story is perhaps very typical of many American’s in such positions; good education, respected by the local community, and an honest and fair worker. However, his family life was very tragic as a disease, which he and his wife were carriers of, was passed onto a number of their daughters. Set against the backdrop of he and his wife’s efforts to find cures, set up support groups and to be generally strong in the face of such adversity, gives him a very human edge in the narrative. This is not a good guy/bad guy tale, but a story in which Epps deftly communicates the ambiguity and the chance of life.
If, perhaps, there is a bad guy in Peyote Vs. The State then it is the U.S. Supreme Court. Epps discusses the image that the average American has of the court, one that believes that it fights for their rights, but he juxtaposes this to the reality; that it picks and chooses its own cases—regardless of fairness. In fact, it might more appropriately be called a political battleground, and the shifting between Democratic and Republican control plays a very important part of this story. Specifically in regard to Ronald Reagan’s appointment of Justice Antonin Scalia. Epps’ exposition of the staunch, right-wing Catholic, who had his own ideas about how the court should function is particularly well described. Strong views combined with strong powers.
“…before the Supreme Court, the lawyers don’t have control. The justices ask the questions, and they take pride in their ability to stump even the best prepared advocate. The Court may overrule its own precedents, and the justices may decide that well-worn arguments no longer have any force” (Epps 187)
In such high drama, it appeared that everyone had forgotten the original reasons the Smith case came about in the first place, when Smith and a white colleague were sacked by the Douglas County Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment (ADAPT). The reason for this was because the two of them had partaken in Peyote with the Native American Church, this supposedly went against the code of practice of ADAPT who naively saw Peyote as a nasty, illegal drug. They were refused benefits and the case was taken to court. Initially, the court found in favour of Smith, but ADAPT appealed. Very soon, the case ceased to be about employment and instead centred on First Amendment rights concerning religious practice—eventually becoming a play trial for the highest court in the land.
The culmination of the U.S. Supreme court’s harsh judgement in the case brought together various religious groups and, indeed, some back peddling by the court in latter cases. In one respect, it was an unhappy ending, so far as Smith did not win the case. However, Epps’ personal narrative goes far to show that individual’s lives go on regardless—Smith was accorded great respect and admiration and Oregon soon had its own chapter of the Native American Church. Peyote Vs. The State is a very engaging narrative, which brings to light the American justice system, archaic attitudes toward Peyote, but, more importantly, includes wonderful portraits of those involved. Not only a great history, but also a great story.