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Western Mohegan Tribe & Nation of N.Y. v. New York

ELR Citation: 31 ELR 20557
Nos. 00-7766, 246 F.3d 230/(2d Cir., 04/17/2001)

The court affirms a district court dismissal of a Native American tribe's National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) claim against the state of New York, but vacates and remands the district court's dismissal of the tribe's First Amendment claim against the state. The tribe claimed that the state violated its right of free exercise of religion under the First Amendment by charging a vehicle access fee to a park on an island on which the tribe allegedly once lived and which they still use for religious ceremonies. The tribe also claimed that the state's development of the park violated the NHPA. The court first holds that because only the federal government can violate the NHPA, the tribe does not have an NHPA claim against the state. The court then holds that the district court erroneously concluded that members of the tribe must prove that they were Native Americans and descendants of the island's inhabitants before they could demonstrate a cognizable injury for the purposes of proving standing for their First Amendment claim. Whatever the race or lineage of the tribe's members, the tribe claims that it conducts religious ceremonies on the island because the land has religious significance to it. To the extent that restrictions on the use of the island apply to the tribe, they would impact the tribe's ability to perform religious ceremonies. Thus, such restrictions constitute an injury-in-fact to the tribe's religious freedom. The court, therefore, remands the First Amendment claim for further proceedings.

Counsel for Plaintiffs
Joshua A. Sabo
Donohue, Sabo, Varley & Armstrong
One Winners Cir., Albany NY 12205
(518) 458-8922

Counsel for Defendants
Andrea Oser, Ass't Solicitor General
Attorney General's Office
State Capitol, Albany NY 12224
(518) 474-7330

Oakes, J. Before Walker and Parker, JJ.