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Holy smokes? Indiana Church of Cannabis holds first service (+video)

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Michael Conroy/AP

(Read caption) First Church of Cannabis founder Bill Levin lights candles on the alter during the church's first service, Wednesday, in Indianapolis. Levin said he decided to keep marijuana out of Wednesday's service to ensure he can test the Indiana religious objections law in civil court instead of on criminal grounds.

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A rowdy bunch of worshippers donning tie-dye T-shirts printed with images of marijuana leaves congregated Wednesday at the inaugural service of the First Church of Cannabis in Indianapolis, a pot-smoking church created to test the limits of Indiana's new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which went into effect the same day.

Dozens of police officers were stationed outside the church, solemnly awaiting the first puff. But the scene inside was decidedly less serious and resembled a concert or day at the beach more than a religious service, The Indianapolis Star reports. Balloons were batted around as members of the congregation danced in the aisles to the song “Mary Jane” and gave testimonies celebrating their experiences with marijuana.

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There was only one thing missing: the cannabis itself.

After authorities threatened arrests last week if the congregation lit up during the service, church founder and longtime marijuana advocate Bill Levin decided to keep pot out of Wednesday’s meeting. He says he wants to ensure that he can test the religious objections law in civil court rather than on criminal grounds. Mr. Levin serves as the “minister of love” of the church and also refers to himself as the “grand poobah,” a reference the character the Lord-High-Everything-Else from Gilbert and Sullivan's opera "The Mikado."

Although some experts say Levin and his followers would have a hard time convincing a judge that their religion is legitimate and not just an excuse to get high, the church was not only recognized by the state shortly after Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law April 2, but was also incorporated as a nonprofit by the Internal Revenue Service in late May.

“I think the government is going to have to make a tough, compelling case [against the church],” attorney and political journalist Abdul-Hakim Shabazz told MSNBC. “Bill and those guys ... they’re creating the paper trail that you need in order to say, ‘Hey, we are a legitimate religion, we are a legitimate faith. Everything we do is aboveboard.’ "

“I think the more they do that,” he added, “the better the chances they have of a victory.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.