An Inland church that uses marijuana to worship is embroiled in a bitter dispute with Jurupa Valley, which alleges the Vault Church of Open Faith is primarily a pot store and has been trying to shut it down for more than a year.

An association representing the church and about 15 others like it fired back Friday, April 13, filing a claim against the city seeking $1.2 million in damages and alleging harassment and discrimination. Church leaders say they smoke marijuana or eat edibles as part of spiritual meditation as a religious sacrament, but city officials say they’re using religion as a front for selling pot.

City Manager Gary Thompson said Jurupa Valley’s city attorney is reviewing the claim. Such a claim is often a precursor to the filing of a lawsuit.

The church’s move comes as the city is pushing for a final decision to wrap up a suit Jurupa Valley brought in Riverside County Superior Court in early 2017 against what it maintains is an illegal dispensary. The Vault incorporated as a church in January and, as of Monday, April 16, was advertising on Weedmaps.

Pipes used to smoke marijuana for a sacrament sit in a corner as minister Gilbert Aguirre conducts Sunday service at Vault Church of Open Faith on Sunday, April 15, 2018 in Jurupa Valley. (Stan Lim, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

The feud also comes weeks before city voters will be asked in June to choose between dueling ballot measures and determine whether commercial cannabis enterprises should be allowed in Jurupa Valley. Marijuana businesses of all types are banned now.

Church officials say the battle is essentially a case of religious persecution through municipal zoning laws, that violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

Brent Fraser, a founder of the The Association of Sacramental Ministeries of which the Vault Church of Open Faith belongs, said city officials are singling out the Jurupa Valley fellowship because it uses marijuana as a sacrament in meditative and other religious exercises.

And it’s not fair, Fraser said.

“We don’t ever question when they serve wine to minors at Catholic churches,” he said. “No one’s trying to shut them down. That doesn’t happen to the Catholic Church because that is their sacrament.”

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Fraser said cannabis has historically been used by other religions for many years, and it’s a genuine expression of the Jurupa Valley church’s faith.

“It’s not a trick or anything like that,” Fraser said. “What law enforcement tends to do is think that everyone is faking it so that they can get stoned. That’s just not true.

“These are not dispensaries. They are spiritual centers. They are healing centers,” he said.

Cannabis-oriented churches have begun to proliferate across the state in the wake of the legalization of recreational marijuana, which took effect at the first of the year after passage of Proposition 64, a 2016 ballot measure.

Thompson, the city manager, said the Vault continues to operate as a dispensary in a city that bars any type of marijuana enterprise. Despite recreational marijuana becoming legal across the state, municipalities have the ability to permit or ban cannabis businesses in their communities.

“The bottom line is they are selling marijuana illegally,” Thompson said. “We have proof of that.”

Court documents state that a city undercover investigator purchased marijuana Dec. 28, 2016. Shortly afterwards, the city sued the Vault.

“At that time, it was never identified as a religious establishment,” Thompson said.

Matthew Pappas, attorney for the Lake Forest-based association, said, “It was a secular dispensary before. That is true. We’re not going to say that it wasn’t.”

But he said the Vault has undergone a conversion since.

According to state records, the Vault Church of Open Faith filed articles of incorporation with the California secretary of state on Jan. 19 of this year.

Conversion and incorporation aside, Thompson said the Vault appears to still be selling pot.

“This particular location is also advertising on Weedmaps,” Thompson said. “It just seems kind of odd that any religious organization would sell a sacrament when it is administered as part of a religious ceremony.”

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The Weedmaps marijuana sales website listed The Vault Church at 5024 Etiwanda (Ave.) as a dispensary. Various strains of pot were listed as being for sale for $40 for an eighth of an ounce, and for $80 for a quarter ounce. Some were priced lower; some higher.

Pappas, the attorney, said the Vault reluctantly allowed Weedmaps to classify the church as a dispensary in its directory.

“Weedmaps doesn’t have a church category,” Pappas said, saying he hopes to change that.

He said the church is using the Weedmaps listing as a tool for its missionary outreach.

“Weedmaps happens to be  a venue that people go to when they are looking for cannabis,” he said. “We are trying to grow the membership of the church.”

As for the church, it’s a small one that meets in the corner of a converted single-family residence in Jurupa Valley.

Services are Sunday mornings. Cannabis, said Fraser, enters into the worship picture typically during a meditative or similar exercise.

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On Sunday, April 15, several members smoked pot during the service and at one point a minister helped a member smoke the cannabis sacrament through a pipe.

Fraser said there are about 15 other churches within the circle of fellowship that includes the Vault Church of Open Faith. Most are in Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, with a few in Washington state. Several more are expected to form shortly, he said.

“The churches are not just a place where you pick up your weed and split,” Fraser said.

They are places where genuine worship and fellowship is practiced, he said, saying the faith is less about a particular deity than about extolling virtues such as kindness, compassion, nurturing and a spirit of brotherhood.

“Whatever you call your God, bring your God here,” Fraser said. “We will find a way to harmonize, rather than to fight with you.”

“The moniker of open faith means that we welcome everybody,” he said.

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