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Saenz v. Department of the Interior

ELR Citation: 32 ELR 20030
Nos. No. 00-2166, (10th Cir., 08/08/2001)

The court holds that the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act's (BGEPA's) restrictions allowing members of federally recognized Native American tribes, but not non-members, to take eagle parts for religious purposes violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The individual who brought the suit is a member of a Native American tribe that is not federally recognized. While executing a search warrant at the individual's home, state officials found and confiscated eagle feathers because the individual did not have a permit under the BGEPA for the feathers. The government, however, failed to show any compelling interests for restricting the individual's use of the eagle feathers under the RFRA. The court first holds that restrictions on the use of eagle parts would not help the government fulfill its trust and treaty obligations to federally recognized tribes because the exception in the BGEPA allowing members of federally recognized tribes to use eagles was not meant to serve as a substitute for certain abrogated treaty hunting rights as the government argued. The court next holds that even if the government has a legitimate interest in eagle conservation, it is not furthering that interest by the least restrictive means. Allowing non-members of Native American tribes to use eagle parts in religious ceremonies would not undermine U.S. obligations to recognized tribes, is not likely to result in increased numbers of illegal kills and an increased reliance on a black market for eagle parts, and would not raise equal protection problems making the permit process administratively unfeasible.

The full text of this opinion is available from ELR (29 pp., ELR Order No. L-396).

Counsel for Appellee
Peter Schoenburg
Rothstein, Donatelli, Hughes, Dahlstrom, Schoenburg & Enfield
320 Central SW, Ste. 30, Albuquerque NM 87102
(505) 243-1443

Counsel for Appellant
Jared A. Goldstein
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000