Arizona Federal Judge Acquits Border Wall Protester after Assertion of Religious Freedom Restoration Act Defense [Tohono O’Odham Lands]

Here are the materials in United States v. Ortega (D. Ariz.):

Quitobaquito Springs (NPS)

News coverage of the acquittal here.

New Scholarship on Substantial Burdens on Native Religious Exercise

Joel West Williams and Emily deLisle have posted “An ‘Unfulfilled, Hollow Promise’: Lyng, Navajo Nation, and the Substantial Burden on Native American Religious Practice,” forthcoming in the Ecology Law Quarterly, on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Many Native American religious practices are linked to sacred sites – places in the natural world that have been used for ceremonies and rites since time immemorial. Often, particular ceremonies and rituals can only be performed at these locations. Many such sacred sites are located on what is, today, public land owned by federal government. The government has at times desecrated, destroyed, or barred access to sacred sites, rendering Native religious exercise extremely difficult or impossible.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was enacted to provide an alternative source of protection for religious exercise in the wake of Employment Division v. Smith’s restrictive interpretation of the Free Exercise Clause. RFRA provides that a government measure that “substantially burden[s]” a person’s exercise of religion will be subject to strict scrutiny. The statute has been successfully invoked by litigants against the government in a wide variety of cases. However, Native American litigants seeking protection for sacred sites located on public lands have been mostly unable to rely on RFRA’s protection. This is in large part because courts have mistakenly interpreted RFRA’s “substantial burden” requirement as incorporating Free Exercise jurisprudence, which has arbitrarily excluded most sacred sites claims from heightened scrutiny simply because the sites were located on public lands. Native Americans are thus denied the same level of religious free exercise that is enjoyed by other groups.

This article illustrates why this overly narrow interpretation of RFRA’s “substantial burden” requirement is erroneous. It demonstrates that courts, especially the Ninth Circuit, have construed “substantial burden” in a manner that is inconsistent with fundamental principles of statutory interpretation, with RFRA’s purpose, and with the Supreme Court’s own reasoning in recent cases including Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Holt v. Hobbs. We highlight how courts applying this prevailing interpretation reach the absurd conclusion that government actions that erase sacred sites and destroy practitioners’ ability to worship do not constitute a “substantial burden” upon religious exercise.

The article then proposes an alternative textualist, plain-meaning understanding of RFRA’s substantial burden requirement which corrects these serious errors while requiring courts to appropriately weigh sacred sites claims against countervailing government interests – realizing RFRA’s promise of equal and meaningful religious freedom for Americans of all faiths.

La Cuna De Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle Advisory Committee v. DOI Cert Petition


Cert Petition

Question presented:

Whether there is a Religious Freedom Restoration Act violation when the Government denies Native Americans access to land necessary for religious rites by the threat of civil or criminal trespass prosecution.

Lower court materials here.

Navajo Boy Sent Home for Having Long Hair on First Day of School

Here is one of many articles.

And here is what the Fifth Circuit has already said about such nonsense regarding the treatment of another 5-year-old in Texas:

A Native American boy and his parents challenge a school district’s requirement that he wear his long hair in a bun on top of his head or in a braid tucked into his shirt. We agree with the district court that the requirement offends a sincere religious belief and hold it invalid under Texas law.

And as @NativeApprops pointed out, one might also check out the name of the district and the mascot where this happened.

Useful Scholarly Materials on RFRA, the Eagle Act, and Hobby Lobby

I urge readers to check out two papers by Kati Kovacs at Rutgers Law School. She formerly worked in DOJ ENRD. She just published Eagles, Indian Tribes, and the Free Exercise of Religion is available online,, and has a forthcoming piece on Hobby Lobby and the Eagle Act, entitled Hobby Lobby and the Zero-Sum Game,

Fifth Circuit Holds Eagle Act Regulations May Violate RFRA

Here is the opinion.

An excerpt:

Appellants filed suit against the Department of the Interior (the
“Department”) seeking a declaration of rights that the Department’s enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (the “MBTA”) and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (the “Eagle Protection Act”) violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) because it prohibits American Indians who are not members of federally recognized tribes from possessing bald and golden eagle feathers. The district court granted the Department’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the Department’s implementation of the Eagle Protection Act was narrowly tailored to a compelling governmental interest. Because we find that the Department did not provide sufficient evidence that the policy of limiting permits for the possession of eagle feathers to members of federally recognized tribes survives the scrutiny required by RFRA, we REVERSE the district court’s grant of summary judgment and REMAND for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Briefs here.

Ninth Circuit Briefs in Oklevueha Native American Church v. Holder


Oklevueha Opening Brief

US Answer Brief

National Council of Native American Churches et al. Amicus Brief

Reply Brief

Lower court materials here. And here.

Prior Ninth Circuit materials here.

Tenth Circuit Issues Prison Sweat Lodge Decision; Religious Freedom Upheld

Here are the materials in Yellowbear v. Lampert:

Yellowbear Brief

Yellowbear Supplemental Brief

Wyoming Brief

Yellowbear Reply

CA10 Opinion

An excerpt:

Andrew Yellowbear will probably spend the rest of his life in prison. Time he must serve for murdering his daughter. With that much lying behind and still before him, Mr. Yellowbear has found sustenance in his faith. No one doubts the sincerity of his religious beliefs or that they are the reason he seeks access to his prison’s sweat lodge — a house of prayer and meditation the prison has supplied for those who share his Native American religious tradition. Yet the prison refuses to open the doors of that sweat lodge to Mr. Yellowbear alone, and so we have this litigation. While those convicted of crime in our society lawfully forfeit a great many civil liberties, Congress has (repeatedly) instructed that the sincere exercise of religion should not be among them — at least in the absence of  a compelling reason. In this record we can find no reason like that.