Tribal Map (Eastern U.S.)

Tribal Map (Eastern U.S.)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Tneth Circuit Court Upholds Bald Eagle Protection Regulations Over RFRA Challenge

From Religion Clause:

10th Circuit Upholds Bald Eagle Protection Regulations Over RFRA Challenge

In a complicated opinion yesterday, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the current federal regulations that implement the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act against a claim that they infringe the religious freedom of adherents of Native American religions who are not members of federally recognized Indian tribes. In United States v. Wilgus, (10th Cir., March 29, 2011), the court gave this background:
16 U.S.C. § 668, prohibits possession of the feathers or parts of eagles, but contains an exception to the ban when the feathers are possessed "for the religious purposes of Indian tribes." Id. § 668a. The regulations implementing the exception limit its scope to members of federally-recognized tribes only, who are allowed to apply to the government for permits. 50 C.F.R. § 22.22. Wilgus is a follower of a Native American faith, but is not a member of a federally-recognized tribe, nor is he Indian by birth.
Faced with prosecution, Wilgus interposed as a defense the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ... which prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening the religious freedom of individuals, unless it does so to forward a compelling governmental interest via the least restrictive means. Wilgus argues that the government’s choice to limit legal possession of eagle feathers to members of federally-recognized tribes substantially burdens his religious exercise which, he claims, requires him to possess eagle feathers.
In an earlier en banc decision, the 10th Circuit had held that defendant's religious exercise was substantially burdened, but that the government had two compelling interests for doing so. In yesterday's decision, the 10th Circuit dealt with the remaining issue-- whether the current regulation is the least restrictive means of furthering the government's interests in protecting the bald eagle as our national symbol and in fostering Native American culture and religion. It held that it is.

In the course of its decision, the court refined the articulation of the government's compelling interests. It concluded that the interest was one of protecting the culture of federally-recognized Indian tribes, not protecting Native American religion more generally. It said that the broader formulation would run afoul of the Establishment Clause:
"When the government acts with the ostensible and predominant purpose of advancing religion, it violates that central Establishment Clause value of official religious neutrality...." [citation omitted]. If we were to hold that the federal government has a compelling interest in fostering Native American culture generally by providing special exceptions to criminal laws for Native American religious practices, we are concerned this might run up against this principle.
By adopting the federally-recognized tribes version of the interest, however, we remain on safe ground, based on the Supreme Court’s conclusion that federally recognized tribes are political—rather than religious or racial—in nature.
AP reports on the decision

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