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The creed includes weed for these Colorado Christians

As snow began to fall outside, Deb Button snuggled up on her couch, fired up a joint and spoke of the nature of Christ.

"Even if Jesus didn't smoke weed, he'd still be a stoner," she said, exhaling a white cloud.

Her kitten sniffed the air curiously.

"Jesus was peaceful and loving. He went from house to house and was always accepted," she explained. "Only a stoner could do that."

Theologians might dispute that, but this was the Stoner Jesus Bible Study, where the divine is liberally interpreted through a haze of pot.

Button, a self-described fortysomething soccer mom with two teenage sons, started the group last May. Disenchanted with her church, she was using marijuana to relieve migraines when something peculiar happened.

"One night I got high and had the most incredible spiritual experience of my life," she said. "I'm sitting in my living room and the cannabis was kicking in at a higher dose, and I could literally feel God. I was filled with love, an indwelling of love."

Delightfully stoned, she hopped on a bike and pedaled around her suburban neighborhood.

"I loved everyone I saw. I said, 'Thank you, God. That was the feeling I always wanted in church!'" she recalled.

But religions are conflicted about pot. Its legalization in many parts of the country has not only posed a challenge to law enforcement, banking and regulators; it has also exposed spiritual rifts. Many mainstream denominations have made allowances for medical use but won't accept recreational pot.

Even Button, an ardent conservative, voted against legalization in Colorado before trying it herself. She has now fully embraced weed, turning her home into a "Bud & Breakfast" where she serves up cannabis-infused pastries and pot leaf smoothies every morning.

After her religious awakening, Button placed an ad on Craigslist seeking kindred spirits. Calls trickled in from those who shared her affinity for getting high and reading Scripture. They soon grew to more than 30 members meeting weekly at Button's home or a Denver coffee shop.

On this wintry evening, members shook off the cold while Button laid out a Mason jar full of joints, a lighter and a stack of Bibles.

Mia Williams and Kim Garcia, both college students, helped themselves.

"People are very judgmental in many churches," said Williams, taking a long drag. "We are not saying this is the only way, but this is the way we worship God."

A smiling Button scanned the room.

"I just read they found cannabis residue in ancient jars in Israel," she said.

"Where did you read that?" Williams asked.

"High Times."

A nervous-looking woman wandered in. She asked not to be identified for fear of losing her job. Marijuana may be legal here, but employees can still be fired for flunking a drug test. And many feel stigmatized for using cannabis.

"I used to cry and beg God to please take this away, but without it I had these deep depressions I couldn't escape," she said. "When it finally became legalized I just wept and thanked God."

Button flipped to Colossians, Chapter 2, in the New Testament and read it aloud. Verse after verse talked about how Christians should stop paying heed to dietary restrictions and customs of other faiths: "Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 'Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!'?"

Knowing glances were exchanged.

"That was deep," Williams said.

"What messages resonated with you?" Button asked.

Williams said the chapter showed God "made all of this stuff for you, and you don't have to listen to what others think."

Another woman interpreted it as a divine stamp of approval on weed.

"If using marijuana causes people to have a peacefulness that pours into others, how can that be anything but pleasing to Christ?" she asked.

That depends.

Pope Francis, known for his progressive stance on gay rights and income inequality, has denounced legalized pot, while ultraconservative televangelist Pat Robertson supports it.

The United Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches approve of medical marijuana in keeping with Matthew 25:35, in which Jesus talks about relieving suffering. Opponents, including many evangelicals, cite Bible passages telling believers not to engage in drunkenness, which they say includes intoxicants like pot.

The argument isn't new. Hallucinogenic and narcotic plants, including cannabis, have played a central role in religious ceremonies for thousands of years. But Christianity has generally frowned on them, with the exception of alcohol, which is used widely in both the New and Old Testaments, said Father Thomas Reese, a senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter.

"One of the problems of using drugs in spirituality is you can confuse an emotional high with a spiritual experience, and that can be very dangerous," Reese said. "Spirituality is more than being mellow and feeling good about yourself. A spiritual experience is supposed to help you get closer to God. You should become closer with your brothers and sisters and realize your responsibility for loving your neighbor as yourself."

That had proved difficult for Button.

"People who go to church don't have a problem loving God, but they do have a problem loving you," she said. "I didn't love my fellow man until I got high."

Every group member said cannabis strengthened a faith that was calcifying. And they have paid a price.

Button said she's been called a "witch" and a "blasphemer" for linking pot with Christianity.

Greg Giesbrecht, 57, said his evangelical church expelled him after learning he used medical marijuana.

"They called and told me I wasn't welcome," he said.

He's now developing a 146-acre cannabis-friendly retreat in rural Colorado where people can camp, get married and worship without judgment.

As the Bible study drew to a close, Button and Williams shared a final toke.

"If weed were more welcome in church, you would see a spiritual revolution," Button predicted.

"Talk about people flooding in," Williams said.

They looked at each other and giggled.

"Oh, man, I am so high," Button said.

Kelly is a special correspondent.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 31, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Their creed includes weed - Members of Stoner Jesus Bible Study say pot strengthens their faith - ON THE GROUND IN CENTENNIAL, Colo." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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