This Day in History: Supreme Court rules desecrating sacred site doesn’t violate First Amendment

On this day in history April 19, 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association that brought into focus the clash between the Western view of land as a resource to be mined, plowed or harvested and the Indigenous view of the earth as Mother and sacred. Today’s example comes from the U.S. Supreme Court case, decided this

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 and would allow a timber harvest 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 on the proposed road, according to the decision. It concluded that constructing it 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.”

Regardless, the U.S. Forest Service pushed ahead with its plans. 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 on the Freedom of Religion argument, but the Congress eventually blocked the road.

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. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the majority wrote that building the road didn’t violate Native people’s First Amendment rights “because it compels no behavior contrary to their belief.”

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. …

From a Western perspective, the Court seems to be arguing that religion 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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