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Bronfman scion's temple plans aren't U.S. town's cup of tea

His family built its fortune selling liquor during Prohibition.

Now, Jeffrey Bronfman is stirring controversy in a remote New Mexican town where he is seeking to build a massive temple for his obscure religious sect to practice an unconventional brand of worship - drinking psychedelic tea to bring them closer to God.

The Bronfmans remain one of Canada's most prominent families, its members respected pillars of society in Montreal, Toronto and New York. Mr. Bronfman, second cousin to Edgar Bronfman Jr. and grandnephew to family patriarch Samuel Bronfman, heads the American offshoot of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal (Portuguese for The Central Beneficial Spirit United in the Plants.)

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The religion was founded by a Brazilian rubber tapper in 1961 in the Amazon rain forest, and has about 8,000 followers worldwide whose beliefs fuse Christian theology with certain aspects of native spirituality.

Mr. Bronfman brought the religion, known as UDV, to the United States in 1992, and the religion has since grown to attract about 130 followers, mainly in the Santa Fe area.

This is not the first time Mr. Bronfman, whose family once owned Seagram's, has found himself at the centre of high-profile controversy linked to his religion, which prohibits the consumption of alcohol.

Three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in favour of his group's religious right to drink the tea, known as hoasca, which is brewed from two plants grown in the Amazon that contain DMT, a hallucinogen that is considered a controlled substance by the U.S. government.

Mr. Bronfman, an environmentalist who discovered the religion and the tea on a trip to the rain forest in the early nineties, successfully argued that the drink was a religious communion, necessary for followers to fully connect with God.

He now plans to donate 2½ acres of land he owns in the small town of Arroyo Hondo near Santa Fe, for the construction of a sprawling temple compound that will feature a caretaker's house, a greenhouse to grow the plants, a kitchen to prepare the tea, as well as a house of worship to accommodate up to 100 people.

Services are currently held in a tent, or yurt, near his Santa Fe home. The land he intends to donate is owned by him "in family trust" according to his lawyer, who would not elaborate.

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However, residents of Arroyo Hondo have criticized the plans, claiming the new temple would cause traffic problems and potential safety issues with worshippers driving while under the influence of the tea.

Mr. Bronfman and other church leaders declined requests for an interview in an e-mail sent to The Globe from the religious group.

However, Tai Bixby, the group's vice-president, told reporters earlier that opposition to the temple was misguided.

"Some of the opposition, I feel, has been fuelled by some people in Arroyo Hondo who found out about this and stoked the fires, saying we're a cult, we do drugs, we're dangerous drivers," he said.

Chris Graeser, the UDV's attorney, said he was confident the building would ultimately go ahead, once it clears a county review next month.

"The building is designed to integrate in the residential community," he said. "Our application is completely up to code."

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Mr. Bronfman, his lawyer said, did not want to attract any publicity to the religious group.

However, in a declaration to the courts submitted in 2001, Mr. Bronfman outlined how he became a proponent of UDV.

"I see UDV as a Light in this world, bringing wisdom, understanding, hope, comfort and peace into the lives of it's parishioners," he wrote.

He brought the religion to the U.S. "under tremendous personal strain, and considerable legal risk ... because I believe in the beauty and truth of this religious practice."

Mr. Bronfman is known as a mestre, the title given to clergy of the faith. He presides over regular religious services that begin at 8 p.m. every other Saturday, administering tea to each of his congregants. He also conducts weddings and baptisms.

The Saturday services involve singing and individual meditation.

"UDV sessions," he writes, "are not characterized by entertainment, frivolity, or pleasure-seeking."

It was unclear whether Mr. Bronfman viewed opposition to the construction of the temple as posing a renewed threat to his religious freedom.

In his earlier declaration to the court, he described "the consequences of our inability to practice our religion" as "substantial and severe."

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About the Author

Sonia Verma writes about foreign affairs for The Globe and Mail. Based in Toronto, she has recently covered economic change in Latin America, revolution in Egypt, and elections in Haiti. Before joining The Globe in 2009, she was based in the Middle East, reporting from across the region for The Times of London and New York Newsday. More

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