Jurupa Valley now has legal authority to shut down the Vault Church of Open Faith, which distributes marijuana as a religious sacrament despite the city’s ban on dispensaries.

Riverside Superior Court Judge Sunshine Sykes granted the lock-out order Wednesday, Aug. 15, allowing the city to close it at any time.

“We’ll execute the order based on the timing of other things we have going on — we’re working on several other dispensaries at the same time,” City Manager Gary Thompson said Tuesday, Aug. 21.

Minister Stephen Serrano, center, offers a pipe with marijuana as part of a sacrament to minister Jason Ramirez at Vault Church of Open Faith on Sunday, April 15, 2018.
(Stan Lim, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Officials with The Vault say they’re practicing religious beliefs — beliefs they say are consistent with thousands of years of religious practice.

“(The judge) didn’t understand why we had to have cannabis,” lead minister Gilbert Aguirre said Tuesday. “It’s like asking Catholics to worship without bread and wine.”

Aguirre believes cannabis has been part of religious practices for centuries, including Christians, based in part on translating the ingredients of anointing oil differently from how religious scholars have traditionally translated the list of ingredients in the Bible.

The Vault might try to appeal the judge’s decision, but first members plan to continue protesting Friday at 1 p.m. outside the Riverside County Historic Courthouse, as they did Monday, Aug. 20.

They’re also looking for a new location.

Aguirre, who doesn’t have formal religious training, said the church is Christ-based but has members who are Muslims, Buddhists and atheists. Services typically include a message from him — the Sunday before, he expanded on a verse about respecting young people — greetings between the roughly 50 people who gather weekly, and testimony from members about how cannabis has helped them. It also often includes smoking or eating marijuana products.

Thompson said The Vault, which lists prices for different types of marijuana on Weedmaps.com, doesn’t look like a church to him.

“I’ve never heard of a church selling their sacrament,” he said.

The Vault is part of the Association of Sacramental Ministries, a group of cannabis-based churches that also includes a Hemet location.

In a post criticizing Judge Skye’s decision, the group’s spokesman, Brent Fraser, quoted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion in the case of a Colorado baker who refused to make a custom cake for a same-sex couple because he believed that doing so would violate his religious beliefs.

“The place of secular officials isn’t to sit in judgment of religious beliefs, but only to protect their free exercise,” Fraser quoted Gorsuch as saying. “Just as it is the ‘proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence’ that we protect speech that we hate, it must be the proudest boast of our free exercise jurisprudence that we protect religious beliefs that we find offensive.”

While Californians voted in 2016 to allow the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, the law leaves other regulations up to cities. Jurupa Valley bans marijuana businesses of all types.

City voters rejected a measure in June that would have allowed marijuana businesses to operate in the city’s manufacturing-service commercial zone. In November, another measure will again ask city residents if they want to legalize and tax cannabis sales.

“The bottom line is we’re just acting on what the voters decided in June,” Thompson said. “The voters decided they don’t want them (dispensaries), and we’ve accelerated our efforts to close them.”

The city had eight active dispensaries as of Tuesday, including The Vault and a dispensary that said it would close Wednesday, according to Thompson.