A coalition of religious leaders has come out in support of a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that’s seeking to establish a safe drug consumption facility, asking a federal court to reject the federal government’s request to dismiss a lawsuit about the harm reduction effort.
In an amicus filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on Friday, 35 Christian and Jewish faith leaders from 19 states asserted that the nonprofit Safehouse should be allowed to open an overdose prevention site as a religious right.
That is, while the Justice Department has cited statute prohibiting facilities that allow illicit drug use, the faith leaders are arguing that Safehouse should be exempt from that policy under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) because the board members’ harm reduction mission to save lives aligns with sincerely held Judeo-Christian beliefs.
DOJ has argued that the religious exemption does not apply because Safehouse itself is not a bone fide religious organization. But the religious leaders said all that matters is that the board members are motivated by faith-based understanding of their obligation to prevent unnecessary drug overdose deaths.
“The Judeo-Christian tradition has a long history of strongly supporting and treating individuals who are sick, even if they engage in activities outside the norm,” they said. “Individuals struggling with addiction are no exception to this calling. Addiction has historically been stigmatized as a personal choice and moral failing; this stigmatization has led to a public health failure depriving drug and alcohol addicts of advocacy and care.”
“Faith leaders throughout history have been compelled by their religious beliefs to save lives, provide life-saving treatment, and care for individuals who engage in illicit activity and are otherwise marginalized from mainstream society,” they said. “This commitment to saving lives is guided by the sacredness of human life and the inherent dignity of every human being, irrespective of health status.”
“RFRA protects the right of adherents to follow their sincerely held beliefs. We provide this brief to the Court to confirm, in concrete terms, that the application of the CSA against Safehouse conflicts with sincere religious beliefs held by Jews and Christians,” it concludes. “The Government’s efforts, if successful, will substantially impair the ability of Jewish and Christian Safehouse Board Members to practice their sincere religious beliefs.”
This filing comes about a week after Safehouse filed its own brief with the court, imploring the judge to deny the Justice Department’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
DOJ said in a filing last month that safe consumption sites, where people could use illegal drugs in a medically supervised environment, violate federal law—and it disputed Safehouse’s arguments that opening the facility should be protected under religious and constitutional law.
The Justice Department first blocked Safehouse from opening the overdose prevention center under the Trump administration. Supporters hoped the department would cede the issue under President Joe Biden, who has promoted harm reduction policies as an alternative to criminalization, but so far they’ve been disappointed.
Safehouse said in an email blast on Thursday that it expects the department to file a response brief on September 8. “After that, it will be in the judge’s hands,” it said.
In the lead-up to DOJ’s initial response, several local lawmakers, including Democrats who champion marijuana legalization, asked the federal court to block Safehouse from opening and request for permission to file a brief in the case. A coalition of 20 Pennsylvania community groups also requested that the court allow it to intervene in the lawsuit.
But in recognition of the fact that the government is defending the existing statute and opposing overdose prevention sites, the court denied the coalition’s request last month.
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia City Council is planning to take up legislation that would prevent the establishment of overdose prevention sites in all but one district.
“We hope the City Council gallery will be filled with supporters,” Safehouse said. “City Council needs to hear that OPCs have been saving lives in 120 locations worldwide for more than 30 years. In addition to reversing overdoses, OPCs link people to treatment.”
The Justice Department previously declined to file a brief to offer its position on the harm reduction issue, and it asked the court for more time to respond in the “complex” case. Last year, the department said that it was in the process of evaluating possible “guardrails” for safe consumption sites.
In January, Safehouse and the department had agreed to transfer the case to mediation before a magistrate judge to settle the issue. The talks had been described as “productive,” leaving some advocates hopeful that DOJ might drop the case altogether.
The Supreme Court rejected a request to hear a case on the legality of establishing the Safehouse facilities in October 2021.
In a recent report, congressional researchers highlighted the “uncertainty” of the federal government’s position on safe drug consumption sites, while pointing out that lawmakers could temporarily resolve the issue by advancing an amendment modeled after the one that has allowed medical marijuana laws to be implemented without Justice Department interference.
While the Philadelphia facility is being held up amid litigation, New York City opened the first locally sanctioned harm reduction centers in the U.S. late last year, and officials have already reported positive results in saving lives.
But a federal prosecutor who has jurisdiction over Manhattan recently emphasized in a statement to The New York Times that the sites are illegal and that he is “prepared to exercise all options—including enforcement—if this situation does not change in short order.”
Meanwhile, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow has tacitly endorsed the idea of authorizing safe consumption sites, arguing that evidence has effectively demonstrated that the facilities can prevent overdose deaths.
Volkow declined to say specifically what she believes should happen with the ongoing lawsuit, but she said safe consumption sites that have been the subject of research “have shown that it has saved a significant [percentage of] patients from overdosing.”
Rahul Gupta, the White House drug czar, has said the Biden administration is reviewing broader drug policy harm reduction proposals, including the authorization of supervised consumption sites, and he went so far as to suggest possible decriminalization.
A study published by the American Medical Association (AMA) last year found that the recently opened New York City facilities have decreased the risk of overdose, steered people away from using drugs in public and provided other ancillary health services to people who use illicit substances.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) put out a pair of requests for applications in December 2021 to investigate how safe consumption sites and other harm reduction policies could help address the drug crisis.
Gupta, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), has said it’s critical to explore “any and every option” to reduce overdose deaths, which could include allowing safe consumption sites for illegal substances if the evidence supports their efficacy.
Read the brief from the religious leaders in the Safehouse case below:
Image courtesy of Dima Solomin.