The Internal Revenue Service is standing by its decision to deny tax-exempt status to a self-described church in Des Moines that allegedly uses a hallucinogenic drug in religious ceremonies.
Earlier this year, the Iowaska Church of Healing sued the IRS in U.S. District Court, challenging the federal agency’s decision to deny the church status as a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization.
State records indicate the church was formed in Iowa in September 2018, and is run by Admir Dado Kantarevic, along with Billy Benskin and Merzuk Ramic. The church’s official location is Kantarevic’s home, located at 4114 27th St., Des Moines. The lawsuit makes references to the church having 20 members at one point in time.
Kantarevic says the church has never conducted any ceremonies at his home or anywhere else in the state of Iowa.
In court filings, the church says that in January 2019, it filed an application with the IRS seeking tax-exempt status and was denied. With the assistance of U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley’s office, the lawsuit alleges, the appeals process at the IRS was expedited and an appeal conference was held in April of this year.
A final determination letter denying tax-exempt status was issued in June of this year, stating that the church’s use of the “Sacrament of Ayahuasca” in its religious practices was illegal, the lawsuit claims.
In response to the church’s lawsuit seeking judicial review of its decision, the IRS said in recently filed court papers that the denial “was made for multiple reasons,” including the findings that the church’s “activities are illegal under federal law and violate public policy,” and that it is “not a church or a convention or association of churches” as defined by federal tax regulations.
The church’s teachings are built around the use of ayahuasca, which is brewed from the leaves of the shrubs and vines found in the Amazon. Elements of those plants have powerful hallucinogenic properties, which the church says can be used to awaken “the Third Eye” of its followers.
The Third Eye is described by the church on its website as “an organ that no one speaks about at school or in private” and which is “secretly protected in the geometric center of your skull.”
In court filings, the church acknowledges that under the federal Controlled Substances Act, an ingredient of ayahuasca called dimethyltryptamine or DMT, is a Schedule I drug and a hallucinogenic alkaloid, and that there is no statutory exemption allowing for its use in religious ceremonies.
The lawsuit states that ayahuasca is consumed in the form of a tea during the church’s religious ceremonies and that its services also “involve prayers, smudging and spiritual music.” The basis of its doctrine emanates from the Ayahuasca Manifesto, a document that details the role of ayahuasca in the expansion of consciousness, the church says.
In February 2019, the church filed a request with the Drug Enforcement Administration, seeking a religious exemption from the Controlled Substance Act. To date, the church alleges, the DEA has delivered no “substantive response” to the request, despite repeated follow-up inquiries.
Court records indicate that in December 2005, Kantarevic, then a personal trainer, was convicted of possession of anabolic steroids and sentenced to one year of probation. He was charged in connection with a federal investigation into the illegal importation of steroids for bodybuilders.
As part of Kantarevic’s guilty plea, he acknowledged that it was his understanding the drugs came from an internationally known bodybuilder and were intended for another competitive bodybuilder who was a top competitor in the 2004 Mr. Universe contest.
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