In a ruling, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s decision to ban certain Native Americans from gathering eagle feathers for religious services. The decision relies heavily on the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in favour of religious freedom. A group of Native Americans along with their church had filed a lawsuit against Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior for the United States, arguing that the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act as well as the Migratory Bird Treaty infringed upon their right to religious freedom. The suit was filed after Pastor Robert Soto, who belongs to the Lipian Apache Tribe, was arrested for possessing eagle feathers without necessary permits.
According to the two laws, possession, taking, barter, sale, transport, purchase, export or import of any golden eagle or bald eagle is prohibited, except when allowed by the Secretary of the Interior. Since many Native Americans consider eagle feathers to be sacred and use them in religious services, the government offers them an exemption and expects the Secretary to issue permits to individuals who are genuine, bona fide practitioners of this religion.
However, in 1999, the office of the Secretary of the Interior began requiring Native Americans wanting permits to establish that they are members of the federally recognized list of tribes. Lipian Apache Tribe has existed for more than 300 years but it is not considered a “federally recognized” tribe. Hence, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the department, arguing that the confiscation of Soto’s feathers, just because his tribe is not federally recognized, is a violation of the religious rights guaranteed to American citizens in the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
According to RFRA, the government is prohibited from burdening an individual’s practice of religion, even if the burden is the result of a law that the government itself has passed. The government can only burden an individual if it has and can establish its own compelling interest or the burden imposed is the least restraining means possible for maintaining its interest.
The district court’s ruling was overturned by Judges Edith Jones, Catharina Haynes and Jennifer Elrod.
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