Worker Emma Caron, of Hopedale, Mass., weighs and prepares medicinal cannabis cigarettes Thursday, July 12, 2018, at Sira Naturals medical marijuana cultivation facility in Milford, Mass. A new Drug Safe Utah lawsuit against the lieutenant governor argues the medical marijuana initiative should be kept off the November ballot in part because it violates constitutional protections of religious freedom.
Steven Senne, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — A new Drug Safe Utah lawsuit against the lieutenant governor argues the medical marijuana initiative should be kept off the November ballot in part because it violates constitutional protections of religious freedom.

The initiative should also be invalidated because it violates the constitutional principles of property rights, due process and equal protection under the law, the lawsuit contends.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the initiative unconstitutional on its face, declare that as a result Utah Lt. Governor Spencer Cox "improperly certified" it, and "issue a preliminary injunction followed by a permanent injunction" preventing it from being placed on the ballot.

The case, filed Wednesday in the 3rd District Court, argues legal precedent shows Cox "had an affirmative obligation … to weigh (the initiative's) interest in promoting the availability of cannabis for medicinal use against the religious beliefs of its citizens, which it failed to do."

The lawsuit argues that the initiative — which generally allows people with certain illnesses to get a medical cannabis card from their physician — also includes language that "mandates that LDS (Church) members would have to open their homes and personal property to tenants who possess and consume mind-altering substances, which is a direct affront to their deeply held religious beliefs."

The legal complaint was making reference to a section of the initiative that states: "No landlord may refuse to lease to and may not otherwise penalize a person for the person's status as a medical cannabis card holder, unless failing to do so would cause the landlord to lose a monetary or licensing-related benefit under federal law."

The lawsuit claims that "any practicing member" of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would "find this mandate deeply offensive and incredibly repulsive to their religious beliefs and way of life."

Latter-day Saints and members of all religions have "the right not to consort with, be around or do business with people engaging in activities which their religion finds repugnant, and to refuse to lease their property to people engaging in activities which they deeply oppose," the lawsuit says.

Drug Safe Utah, an organization created in April to oppose the initiative, and its president Walter Plumb are among the plaintiffs listed in the lawsuit. The case is not formally tied in any way to the church.

The initiative campaign, Utah Patients Coalition, slammed the lawsuit's religious freedom arguments as an act of "unnecessarily dividing our pluralistic state based on religious affiliation and creed."

"Hundreds of thousands of LDS members in our state support our reasonable cannabis reforms and ballot initiative," the coalition's director, DJ Schanz, told the Deseret News. For the plaintiffs "to cloak themselves in their religion to move forward their divisive political agenda is not only in poor taste, it's poor policy," he said.

Plumb said the lawsuit referenced Latter-day Saints specifically because "I'm the plaintiff and I happen to be a member of the LDS faith." But the initiative's infringements on landlord rights are applicable "for any religion, and it's broader than that — it's for people of good will … (who) would want to protect the youth in their state," he said.

Schanz decried the lawsuit's characterization of people who would use medical marijuana in Utah under the initiative as "beyond the pale."

"One would have to have ice water running through one's veins after spending a day with these sick and suffering people to say these things," he said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has previously expressed concerns about the issue of medical marijuana legalization, saying in a May statement about the initiative that a legal analysis commissioned on behalf of the church "raises grave concerns about … the serious adverse consequences that could follow if it were adopted."

"We invite all to read the (analysis) and to make their own judgment," the church said in its statement at that time.

The analysis commissioned by the church briefly mentioned restrictions preventing landlords from refusing to do business with tenants who use medical marijuana, but did not make any references to the topic of religious freedom.

Church spokesman Eric Hawkins declined to comment for this story Thursday.

The legal complaint comes about six weeks after Drug Safe Utah dropped its prior lawsuit in federal court, citing concerns over how its standing in the case would be interpreted. It promised to refile at the state level.

However, Plumb said Thursday that it was "a possibility, maybe even a likelihood" that the legal proceedings could be moved again to federal court due to U.S. Constitution issues raised in the new lawsuit.

"I have standing — I'm a landlord — so we'll see what the courts say," Plumb told the Deseret News.

Unlike the new case, the previous lawsuit focused on the state of Utah permitting the consideration of a law contradicting federal statutes on marijuana itself, Plumb said.

What is new in the recent filing, he said, is that it instead focuses on "fundamental property law" concerning the rights of landlords and municipalities, as well as what Drug Safe Utah sees as unlawful civil liability exemptions for doctors who give patients medical cannabis cards.

Besides its religious freedom arguments regarding property owners, the lawsuit also claims the initiative infringes upon landlords' freedom of speech and equal protection under the law, among other rights, and that it unlawfully usurps the legal zoning prerogatives of Utah municipalities and counties.

Anna Lehnardt, spokeswoman for Cox's office, declined to comment on the lawsuit.