James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney

A Utah County medicine man filed a civil rights lawsuit Wednesday against county officials who led a failed criminal prosecution for his use of peyote in religious ceremonies.

James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney alleges Utah County Attorney Kay Bryson violated his First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion, as well as approved the unconstitutional seizure of peyote buttons from his Oklevueha Earthwalks Native American Church.

The suit also names deputy Utah County attorney David Wayment and members of the Utah County Sheriff's Office as defendants.

"This whole lawsuit was brought together so I can get my medicine back and to deprive Utah County of the illegal and unethical behavior of Mr. Bryson," Mooney said from the steps of Utah's federal courthouse shortly after the suit was filed.

Mooney and his wife were arrested in November 2000 and charged with illegally distributing controlled substances to non-Indians. Nearly four years later, the Utah Supreme Court ruled members of the Native American Church can use peyote in religious ceremonies, regardless of their race.

Despite the ruling in his favor, Mooney alleges the state has refused to return some 18,000 peyote buttons seized during an October 2000 raid on his church in Benjamin, Utah County. The U.S. Attorney's Office also has put Mooney on notice that he could face federal charges if he uses peyote in church ceremonies.

Mooney alleges Bryson and others have abused their authority and attempted to intimidate him into no longer including peyote in his ceremonies, which Mooney said he hasn't done since he was first charged but is anxious to resume.

"Against my edict of my tribal chief I have refused to help people who have come to me out of fear (of prosecution)," Mooney said, adding he can't assure the members of his church they will be safe from law enforcement. "All I've ever wanted is just to be left alone to help the people who come to me."

The recent claims are similar to those raised in an earlier federal lawsuit, which was ultimately dismissed because of the ongoing state court matters, said Peter Stirba, attorney for the Utah County officials.

At the time Mooney was criminally charged, it was unclear as to whether a federal exemption that allows for peyote use in religious ceremonies applied to state law, Stirba said. Since the issue was not clarified until after the Supreme Court's ruling, Bryson acted in good faith by applying the law at the time.

"Now the law is clear and everybody now knows what the rules of the game are," Stirba said. "And certainly I can assure you there will be no further prosecution inconsistent with the Supreme Court's decision."

The attorney dismissed the idea that Bryson abused his authority or acted on any kind of personal vendetta, as alleged Wednesday by Mooney: "Quite frankly that is not the basis that any county attorney initiates prosecutions."

E-mail: awelling@desnews.com