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Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Ass'n

ELR Citation: 18 ELR 21043
Nos. No. 86-1013, 485 U.S. 439/(U.S., 04/19/1988) Rev'd & remanded

The Court holds that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment does not prohibit the federal government from permitting timber harvesting or constructing roads in the Six Rivers National Forest in California, even where these activities will interfere with native American Indian religious rituals. The Court first concludes that it is advisable for it to address the First Amendment issue, even though it is not clear whether the constitutional question was necessary to the decisions below. Neither the district court nor the court of appeals expressly articulated that a decision on the First Amendment issue was necessary because it might entitle the Indians to relief beyond that to which they were entitled on their statutory claims. However, the structure and language of the district court's injunctive order suggests that its holdings under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act would not have supported all the relief granted. The court of appeals may have been silent on the issue because it understood that the injunction necessarily rested on constitutional grounds.

The Court then holds that the First Amendment does not prohibit the government from permitting timber harvesting in the disputed area or constructing a proposed road between two California towns. Although the harvesting and road construction will severely disrupt the natural environment and the Indians' sacred areas, the government's actions will not coerce the Indians into violating their religious beliefs, nor will they penalize religious activities. Incidental effects of government programs, which may make it more difficult for individuals to practice their religion but which do not coerce them into acting contrary to their religious beliefs, do not require the government to assert a compelling justification for an otherwise lawful action. The First Amendment would not prohibit the government's activities even if they were to virtually destroy the Indians' ability to practice their religion, since the Constitution applies equally to all citizens and can give none of them a veto over public programs that do not prohibit the free exercise of religion. The government's rights to use its own land should not discourage it, however, from accommodating religious practices such as those engaged in by the Indians, and the government has in fact taken numerous steps to minimize the impact that construction of the road will have on the Indians' religious activities. The Court holds that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act does not authorize the injunction against completion of the road, since the Act does not create judicially enforceable individual rights.

The dissent would hold that federal land use decisions, such as those at issue here, that render the practice of a given religion impossible burden the religion contrary to the requirements of the Free Exercise Clause. Although governmental action that simply offends religious sensibilities may not be challenged, the dissent argues, laws that affect spiritual development by frustrating religious practices trigger constitutional protection. The case at bar can be distinguished from earlier case law in that federal land use decisions are likely to have substantial external effects that governmental actions involving the processing of information will not have.

[The Ninth Circuit's opinions are published at 17 ELR 20021 and 15 ELR 20682; the district court's opinion is published at 13 ELR 20793.]

Counsel for Petitioners
Andrews J. Pincus, Ass't to Solicitor General
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-5507

Counsel for Respondents
Marlyn B. Miles
California Indian Legal Services
P.O. Box 1128, Suite A, 324 F St., Eureka CA 99501
(707) 443-8392