Cannabis church gets tax-exempt status

When it comes to living the high life, the First Church of Cannabis is on its way.

The Internal Revenue Service recently notified the Indianapolis-based church that it had been granted tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, which covers nonprofit organizations. The designation means the First Church of Cannabis will get the benefits of being considered a public charity, such as exemption from federal income tax and allowing donors to deduct their financial contributions.

That could prove to be a major boon for the First Church of Cannabis, which is raising money through a "crowdsourcing" site as it tries to find a home. The organization was created partly in response to Indiana's controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which protects religious organizations from government interference, church founder Bill Levin told CBS MoneyWatch. The church plans to hold its first service on July 1, when the law goes into effect.

"It's a statement of love from the IRS," Levin said, adding that he expects the tax-exempt status to encourage bigger donations. "I'm expecting love from foundations, and a lot from around the world."

An IRS spokesperson was not immediately available to comment.

Cannabis is considered the sacrament of the church, Levin wrote on its Facebook page. "It brings us closer to ourselves and others. It is our fountain of health, our love, curing us from illness and depression. We embrace it with our whole heart and spirit, individually and as a group," he noted.

The real test may come when the church lights up its sacrament on July 1, given that possession of the drug is illegal in Indiana. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, pot smokers can be fined up to $5,000 and punished with up to one year in jail for "possession of even a single joint."

Despite those sanctions, Levin said that thousands of people have indicated they want to participate in the church's first service, including worshippers from across the U.S. and internationally.

Asked how church members will use cannabis to express their faith during services at the church, Levin responded, "Real simple. You put it in your mouth and light the other end and suck."

He added that the church won't supply marijuana. "It's BYOB: Bring your own bud. The church won't supply, trade or buy. We are about staying within the guidelines of the law."

Levin would have to prove that his church was legitimate in order to be protected under the religious freedom law, Indiana University law professor Robert Katz told the Indianapolis Star.

After the controversial law drew national attention following criticism that it would allow same-sex couples to be refused service at stores, the act was revised so that businesses would be barred from denying services or goods to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people. It was signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence earlier this year.

Whatever happens with the church and its test of the law, it's likely they'll keep an upbeat outlook on the situation. Its tenets include feel-good instructions such as, "Spend at least 10 mins a day just contemplating life in a quiet space," and "Laugh often, share humor. Have fun in life, be positive."

Some of the tenets apply to modern issues as well, such as "Do not be a 'troll' on the Internet, respect others without name calling and being vulgarly aggressive."

Levin noted, "These are things that weren't thought about when they wrote the old books. We have a modern religion for modern times."