Open Religion on The Farm includes Pot
By Bill Rawlings, Associated Press
Summertown, Tennessee – not far from this rural community, 70 miles southwest of Nashville, there lives a thriving colony of Mennonites whose religious roots are in Switzerland.
In nearby Loretta, there are two churches – the Church of Christ, with its roots in the Bible Belt, and Sacred Heart Catholic Church, with its roots in Rome.
Even closer, however is The Farm, a spiritual community of 600 long hairs with roots in San Francisco.
“We’re the largest, peaceful, non welfare, long hair community in the country,” says Stephen Gaskin, 38, the acknowledged spiritual leader of the 1750 acre commune. They also are the only one of the divergent spiritual groups asking the US Supreme Court preserve their religious freedom – to use marijuana.
“Every Sunday morning we get together before sunrise and take communion,” says Gaskin. “We sit in meditation for an hour before the sun comes up, and we smoke marijuana when we have it.”
The case for religious freedom resulted from an August 3rd, 1971, raid by State agents in which Gaskin and 3 followers were charged with manufacturing marijuana. Convicted at nearby Hohenwald and sentenced to prison terms of up to three years, the four appealed and lost – to the State Supreme Court.
The US Supreme Court then refused to hear an appeal that the convictions violate the First Amendment prohibition against interfering with free exercise of religion. They are re-appealing on another aspect of the law.
“We use marijuana because we find open religious experience to be one step closer to God than open Bible of Latin that only the priesthood understood,” said Gaskin in a statement included in the group’s Supreme Court brief.
Copies of the brief, with a green marijuana leaves imprint, were distributed to newsmen.
The Farm is chartered under Tennessee law as a non-profit charitable institution. Its 144 children attend a state-approved school in which commune members, some highly educated, serve as teachers.
About 350 of its men, women and children arrived in Nashville in 1971 – and camped for several weeks in their brightly painted buses and similar vehicles on the shores of Percy Priest Lake.
When the original group left San Francisco on Columbus Day, 1971, Gaskin – who has a masters degree – left his post as an instructor of English and creative writing at San Francisco State College.
Subsequently, the group tried to farm a hilly, wooded area north of Nashville, and failed. Finally, they settled on the farm north of here and purchased an additional 700 acres to go with the original 1050 acres for which they paid $70,000.
The money came from inheritances and savings, Gaskin says – and the news of the colony spread by word of mouth so that the original San Francisco group has nearly doubled in size.
About 75 persons have been moved into compact homes set back in the woods along dirt roads.
The dwellings range in size from one room to buildings large enough to have six families, each with a private room and a loft for sleeping. In the multi-family homes, couples share kitchen facilities and the central living area.
Hot showers are available at a community bathhouse, men and women together.
“We’re into believing the human form is beautiful and it’s alright for folks to see each other and stuff,” Gaskin explained.
Most of the community, however still lives in converted schoolbuses and army surplus tents with wooden floors.
The Farm’s crops include soybeans and other vegetables. The group eats no meat and their milk is made of soy beans. Dairy workers among the group, under the leadership of two members with degrees in chemistry and biology, recently developed soy milk shakes and ice cream.
Gaskin is qualified under Tennessee law to perform marriages and says he is a partner to a marriage which includes three couples who share full sexual privileges.
“The thing about these marriages is that we didn’t plan them or anything,” Gaskin said. “We just sort of inherited them.”
But Gaskin said only four or five group marriages have survived.
Income for the operation, which goes into a common fund, comes from the sale of farm products and sorghum processed in a mill which also doubles as a soy dairy. But a sizable portion of the communities income of $15,000 to $20,000 per month comes from its construction crews – which earns about $2,000 a week in jobs elsewhere.
Their neighbors view them in various ways, but Walter Eskew, who’s 32 acre farm is only a mile from the commune’s own boundaries, says, “They’re just like neighbors.”
“They have a few different ways of doing things,” he said “but they help out if you want them.”