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Judge Says Drug Counselor’s Religious Rights Were Violated

May 19, 1987

FARGO, N.D. (AP) _ The state Human Services Department violated a drug counselor’s civil rights by firing her after she used peyote in Indian religious ceremonies, a federal judge ruled.

Four state officials violated Francis Warner’s right to religious expression by making her choose between her job and her membership in the Native American Church, U.S. District Judge Patrick Conmy said in refusing to dismiss her lawsuit Friday.

″This is a monumental decision in the history of (North Dakota) civil rights ... and will, I believe, have national implications,″ Mrs. Warner’s lawyer, David Thompson, said at a news conference Monday.

Mrs. Warner called the ruling a personal victory.

″I think it’s a strong statement about the validity of the Native American Church,″ she said.

Thompson and co-counsel Gregory Lewis said Mrs. Warner will press on in seeking $1 million in damages.

Mrs. Warner, who lives near Tokio on the Fort Totten Indian Reservation, was fired as a drug and alcohol counselor at the Lake Region Human Services Center in Devils Lake in 1984.

Her dismissal came after she admitted using peyote, a hallucinogenic substance that comes from cacti, in ceremonies of the Native American Church. Mrs. Warner and her husband, John, were acquitted on federal peyote-possession charges later that year.

Congress has sanctioned peyote’s use by Native American Church members as part of church rituals.

The state Personnel Board reinstated Mrs. Warner, but she resigned over differences with her supervisors and sued Human Services executive director John Graham and three other officials in September 1985.

Mrs. Warner claimed the defendants gave her the choice of losing her job or severing her ties with the Native American Church. The four asked Conmy to dismiss the action, saying the U.S. Constitution barred lawsuits against the state.

Mary Maring, a lawyer representing the four officials, said she had not seen a copy of Conmy’s ruling and would not comment on it until she had done so. Graham also declined comment, and the three other defendants did not return calls to their offices Monday.

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