"I'm not going to say they're not churches, but to the extent that they're distributing marijuana, they're an illegal dispensary, in my view," said San Jose City Attorney Rick Doyle. Doyle has requested a permanent legal injunction to stop the Coachella Valley Church from providing marijuana, and a court hearing is scheduled for Jan. 22. He recently got a court order to shut down operations of a similar church, the Oklevueha Native American Church of South Bay, he said.
Nationally, such churches have opened in Indiana, where marijuana remains illegal, and Michigan, where medical marijuana is allowed. Even in Colorado, which legalized pot in 2012, the "International Church of Cannabis" is testing the limits of state and city rules on consuming marijuana in public.
Marijuana churches typically require people to purchase a membership, then give or sell them marijuana and related products. They may ask for ID such as a driver's license but don't require a doctor's recommendation or medical marijuana identification card.
They're relying on court rulings that made it possible for some groups, including Native Americans, to use federally banned drugs like peyote in their religious ceremonies. (A coalition of Native American churches has disavowed Oklevueha churches that claim marijuana as their sacrament.)
Despite these rulings, courts have thus far rejected religious groups' right to use marijuana, which is still illegal at the federal level, according to Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia Law School professor specializing in religious liberty issues.
"Marijuana churches have brought religious liberty claims for years, and they have always lost," Laycock said. "Marijuana is a huge recreational drug, and a religious exception ... would make enforcement nearly impossible. So the courts have always found a compelling government interest in marijuana enforcement."
Yet, Laycock said, as more states legalize marijuana, courts may regard marijuana churches' rights more favorably.
"Legalization changes everything," he said. "Religious use may not violate state law in some of these states. And if it does, legalizing recreational use but not religious use clearly discriminates against religion."
In California, however, the Coachella Valley Church may not be able to offer its potent sacrament for much longer.
The church operates in a 1925 San Jose mansion that formerly housed the Amsterdam's Garden medical marijuana dispensary, which was shut down last year by San Jose city officials in a citywide crackdown on dispensaries.