Laws permitting the use of a hallucinogenic drug in religious services by American Indians are constitutional, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, but permission does not extend to other groups wanting to use peyote.

The Peyote Way Church of God Inc. sued in U.S. District Court seeking to have Texas and federal laws declared unconstitutional because they let only the 250,000-member Native American Church use peyote.The NAC, established in Oklahoma in 1918, was the corporate form of a centuries-old religion involving the use of peyote. A former member of NAC organized Peyote Way in Arizona in 1979.

Peyote is a variety of cactus that grows primarily in southwestern Texas. Portions of the plant's stem contain mescaline, which causes hallucinations when eaten. Peyote was first classified as a controlled substance in 1966.

A bill pending in the Utah Legislature would legalize the use of peyote by Indians in religious ceremonies.

In its suit, Peyote Way argued that laws permitting NAC to use peyote were a violation of First Amendment guarantees against governmental establishment of religion and also a violation of constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law.

U.S. District Judge William M. Taylor Jr. ruled against Peyote Way, and the 5th Circuit upheld Taylor in a 2-1 decision on Wednesday.

"We hold that the federal NAC exemptions allowing tribal Native Americans to continue their centuries-old tradition of peyote use is rationally related to the legitimate governmental objective of preserving Native American culture," wrote Judge Thomas Reavley in a 12-page majority opinion issued by the panel.

"The unique guardian-ward relationship between the federal government and Native American tribes precludes the degree of separation of church and state ordinarily required by the First Amendment," he wrote.

"The federal government cannot at once fulfill its constitutional role as protector of tribal Native Americans and apply conventional separatist understandings of the establishment clause to that same relationship."

Judge Charles Clark disagreed, writing that the NAC exemption was clearly a law respecting the establishment of religion.