Cannabis church suing Merced County Sheriff after they claim he violated their religious freedom

LIVINGSTON, Calif. (KFSN) -- These are just some of the thousands of illegal marijuana grows sheriff's deputies said they are seeing in Merced County. This year alone, they have destroyed more than 42,000 plants, but now one Rastafarian Church is firing back after they claim their rights were violated.

Reverend Heidi Lepp, with Sugarleaf Rastafari Church, said, "They're not respecting my church-- and it's not fake and I'm not hiding behind anything."

Deputies recently found and confiscated several plants from a Sugarleaf Rastafarian Church property along Westside Drive near Livingston last week.

Just days after the plants were destroyed, Reverend Lepp said she filed a lawsuit against Sheriff Vern Warnke. She claims the sheriff violated religious and civil rights and the confiscation of her plants is also a hate crime. Stating the defendant is "unreasonably targeting our religion due to narrow minded personal beliefs."

"He's violating the law by raiding my churches or discriminating against it in any way."

Sheriff Warnke said he cannot talk directly about the lawsuit, but said the amount of plants found at the farm was way over the legal 12 plant limit the county allows.

"The individual filing the lawsuit is a drug dealer and doesn't like the idea that I don't care that they're hiding behind a religious claim. If it's illegal, it's illegal. There's no getting around legality by calling it a religion."

Warnke said the same organization's church in Yuba County was the site of a shooting in which two deputies were injured. He said grows this large mean the plants are being sold for profit and it is a problem they are seeing all over the county.

"When you deal with individuals with more than 12, you know they're doing it for profit. They're dealing, they're playing the sympathy card and saying, 'oh nuns can do it, the church can do it,' it's lipstick on a pig. Call it what you want it's still drug dealers."

Despite the lawsuit Warnke said unless county laws change, they will continue to destroy marijuana grows larger than the legal limit.
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