American Indian wants smoking ban exemption for religious ceremonies

Jodi Pospeschil

Larry Cooper is not a smoker.

The Hancock County man couldn't care less that the state's 14-month-old Smoke Free Illinois Act prevents lighting up in restaurants or restricts smoking in public areas.

Cooper is an American Indian, visibly proud of his heritage, and his concern is that the legislation makes it nearly impossible to conduct indoor tribal religious ceremonies. Those ceremonies include using smoke from burning prairie grasses, herbs and pure tobacco and the use of ceremonial pipes.

Cooper, a member of the Standing Bear Council, is seeking an amendment to the state act that exempts such religious practices.

"It (would mean) nothing to the general public," he said.

Illinois Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, introduced the state act amendment in February. It will be heard in the Senate's Public Health Committee on Tuesday. If it passes, it will go to the full Senate for a vote.

Sullivan said if the necessary approvals are then gathered from the Illinois House, it could be May before the amendment becomes part of the act.

The language in Senate Bill 1685 reads, "'smoke' or 'smoking' does not include smoking that is associated with a recognized religious ceremony, ritual, or activity."

Sullivan said the issue with the law was brought to his attention by Cooper. He added that he's also met with opponents of any change to the smoke-free act.

"It should be a good argument," he said of the committee discussion.

Smoke is a large part of American Indian ceremonies and celebrations.

One practice, called smudging, is a cleansing ritual before American Indians go into the "circle" to dance. Sage is burned to cleanse the spirit as part of the practice.

"We're not just out there dancing," Cooper said. "The circle is a sacred place, and you don't enter it without being cleansed. We try to teach traditional things, so why would we ... do it untraditionally?"

Grasses such as prairie sage, lavender and black cedar are crushed and steeped in a stone bowl for at least some of the ceremonies. The process appears similar to burning incense, which Cooper said is also not allowed under Illinois' new smoking act.

"Different herbs are used for different processes," he said. "There are no chemicals in any of the herbs."

Since the smoke-free act was passed, Cooper said he and other practitioners have been told the ceremonies must be conducted outdoors. He likens that to members of a church having to go outside to take communion.

"This is not right," he said. "We shouldn't have to do that. We have to draw a line somewhere."

Cooper said he knew seven months before the act was passed by state legislators that it would infringe on the religious rights of American Indians.

"I tried then to get the amendment," he said.

There was a similar issue when Iowa passed a smoking ban recently. But Cooper said it took just a few telephone calls and a few weeks to get an amendment passed through the Iowa Legislature.

Cooper said he has been contacted by an attorney for the American Cancer Society about his requests. He said the attorney asked him not to pursue the amendment and told him a federal law protecting such religious practices should usurp the state law.

But Cooper argues that most everyone in Illinois is familiar with the state ban but few know about the federal allowance.

"By federal law we have the right," he said. "But it's not our job to try to explain this to people. We shouldn't have to debate what we can and can't do."

While Cooper waits for a state legislative decision on the proposed amendment, he's busy at his home office making calls to American Indian groups around the country. He's no longer asking for amendment support but is asking American Indian groups to no longer donate to agencies such as the cancer society that oppose the amendment.

"I'm just asking them, but I've had a very good response," he said.

An attorney for the cancer society did not return a message seeking comment on the amendment.

"I'm looking for a means of coming back and putting pressure on the ones coming at us," Cooper said. "Our people have been very generous. There are enough of us nationwide - I'm sure we can put a stop to it. We'll (hold back) money from the ones creating the problems."

Jodi Pospeschil can be reached at (309) 686-3041 orstate@pjstar.com.