LINEKER v. STATE
MICHAEL S. LINEKER, Appellant,
STATE OF ALASKA, Appellee.
MARIA L. LINEKER, Appellant,
STATE OF ALASKA, Appellee.
Court of Appeals Nos. A-8957, A-8967
The court denied the Lineker’s their constitutional right to Freedom of Religion. I assume this will be appealed, as is the opinion of the dissenting Judge, Judge Mannheimer.
The dissenting Judge’s opinion.
MANNHEIMER, Judge, dissenting.
The Linekers are being prosecuted for growing approximately four dozen marijuana plants on their property.[ 21 ] They claim that they grew the plants, not to ingest the buds or leaves of the plants, but rather to harvest the oil so that this oil could be used in a religious ceremony.
Article I, Section 4 of the Alaska Constitution states that “[n]o law shall be made … prohibiting the free exercise [of religion].” In Frank v. State, 604 P.2d 1068, 1071-74 (Alaska 1979), the Alaska Supreme Court held that, because of this provision of our constitution, an apparently religion-neutral law of general application (such as the laws prohibiting the possession and use of marijuana at issue in this appeal) can not be enforced against a person when (1) the person has a sincere religious belief that calls for the person to engage in the prohibited conduct and (2) the State is unable to furnish a compelling government interest to justify the prohibition.
In our first decision in this case, Lineker v. State, Alaska App. Memorandum Opinion No. 5119 (October 4, 2006) at 7, 2006 WL 2847849 at *3, we directed the superior court to apply the Frank test to the facts of the Linekers’ case. The superior court concluded that the Linekers’ asserted religious beliefs were not sincere — that “the Linekers contrived this set of beliefs in order to have access to an illegal drug”.
As the majority opinion correctly points out, an appellate court normally defers to a lower court’s assessment of witness credibility when the lower court judge has personally observed the witnesses giving their testimony. But an appellate court must be particularly careful in matters dealing with the sincerity of a person’s religious belief. Specifically, if a lower court evaluates the sincerity of a person’s religious beliefs by assessing whether the person’s asserted beliefs comport with standard religious beliefs, the lower court commits an error of law — and thus an appellate court need not defer to the lower court’s conclusion.
As our supreme court declared in Frank, “The determination of religious orthodoxy is not the business of a secular court.” 604 P.2d at 1073. More broadly, courts must be circumspect when determining whether a person’s set of beliefs constitutes a “religion”. For example, as the Fifth Circuit noted in Theriault v. Silber, 547 F.2d 1279 (5th Cir. 1977), a definition of “religion” that requires proof of a belief in a supreme being is unconstitutionally narrow, because it would exclude “agnosticism and conscientious atheism … from the [protection of] the Free Exercise and Establishment [clauses]”. Id. at 1281.
In the present case, the superior court’s findings on remand focus in large measure on the apparent inconsistencies in the Linekers’ testimony about their beliefs and the tenets of their asserted religion. Based on these inconsistencies — many of which apparently came to light during cross-examination — the superior court concluded that Mr. Lineker was “making it up as he went along”. This is the type of finding that an appellate court must defer to.
But the superior court’s findings also contain several instances where, seemingly, the court assessed the sincerity of the Linekers’ beliefs by the extent to which these beliefs were unorthodox. For example, in the same passage where the superior court declared that the Linekers had “conjured up” “an idiosyncratic belief system” “in order to allow them to experiment with [marijuana]”, the court repeatedly supported this assertion with observations as to the non-orthodox nature of the Linekers’ beliefs:
The court finds that the defendants’ marijuana growing operation was the result of an idiosyncratic belief system conjured up in order to allow them to experiment with the illegal drug. The credible evidence at the evidentiary hearing does not establish that the Linekers were practicing any institutional set of values or codification of ethics that involved methods of how to deal with the world. There is no credible recognition of some force or power beyond the personal that is themselves. Their God is themselves.
Later, toward the end of the superior court’s findings, the court again refers to the non-orthodoxy of the Linekers’ beliefs:
In Alaska[,] some people’s spiritual solace may be to go into the wilderness and commune with nature. Smoking a little dope or absorbing it through the skin … may or may not turn it into a more pleasurable experience. [But it] does not turn it into a religious experience.
. . .
Mr. Lineker has manufactured other unusual beliefs and [he] may at some point have convinced himself. His wife testifies to her belief in [the] validity [of these beliefs]. … While this may be evidence of [Mr. Lineker’s] ability to convince himself and his wife of unusual things[,] it does not mean that his current statements about his beliefs amount to a religion for him or her.
Given these passages from the superior court’s findings, I believe there is a substantial possibility that the superior court improperly evaluated the sincerity of the Linekers’ beliefs by comparing them (unfavorably) to standard religious beliefs. I would therefore vacate the superior court’s findings and remand this case to the superior court once again, so that the Linekers’ sincerity (or lack of sincerity) can be assessed in a proper fashion.