This Day in History: Supreme Court OKs Road Through Sacred Site

There are any number of examples of the clash between the Western view of the earth as a resource to be harvested and the Native view of the earth as Mother and sacred. Today’s example comes from the U.S. Supreme Court case Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, decided this day in history April 19, 1988.

Background: The U.S. Forest Service wanted to build a 75- mile road connecting two towns. A six-mile stretch would pass through the Chimney Rock area of the Six Rivers National Forest in California, with the potential to harvest timber in the area. The proposed route went through an area sacred to the Yurok, Karuk, and Tolowa Indians.

The Forest Service commissioned a draft environmental impact statement (EIS). According to the Court record: “The study concluded that constructing a road along any of the available routes would cause serious and irreparable damage to the sacred areas which are an integral and necessary part of the belief systems and lifeway of Northwest California Indian peoples.”

The U.S. Forest Service decided to go ahead with its plans anyway. Native groups, environmental groups and the state of California challenged the Forest Service’s decision. Native groups argued the road would violate their First Amendment rights. They lost the legal battle and the Freedom of Religion argument, but did eventually save the sacred space.

The Court’s syllabus and decision noted that the area in question “has historically been used by certain American Indians for religious rituals that depend upon privacy, silence, and an undisturbed natural setting.” However, the Court ruled 5-3 that the road project did not violate the First Amendment protections. Here is the main argument:

The Free Exercise Clause affords an individual protection from certain forms of governmental compulsion; it does not afford an individual a right to dictate the conduct of the Government’s internal procedures. …

For the Free Exercise Clause is written in terms of what the government cannot do to the individual, not in terms of what the individual can exact from the government.

From a Western perspective, the Court seems to be arguing that beliefs and spirituality can be separated from location. (One example might be building a new church, consecrating it, then later selling it for a secular use. Beliefs aren’t tied to location.) For the Yurok, Karuk, Tolowa and other Native peoples, space and spiritual practices are intimately connected, because the land is not a resource but a relative.

Justice William Brennan wrote a stinging dissent, which Thurgood Marshall and Harry Blackmun also signed. Here is its conclusion:

Today, the Court holds that a federal land use decision that promises to destroy an entire religion does not burden the practice of that faith in a manner recognized by the Free Exercise Clause. Having thus stripped respondents and all other Native Americans of any constitutional protection against perhaps the most serious threat to their age-old religious practices, and indeed to their entire way of life, the Court assures us that nothing in its decision “should be read to encourage governmental insensitivity to the religious needs of any citizen.” … I find it difficult, however, to imagine conduct more insensitive to religious needs than the Government’s determination to build a marginally useful road in the face of uncontradicted evidence that the road will render the practice of respondents’ religion impossible.

The road was never built. Congress intervened and included Chimney Rock in a wilderness area to protect it. However, the legal precedent still stands.

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