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Legal eagle feathers?

<em>Hobby Lobby</em> decision gives new life to Native American lawsuits


A Lipan Apache powwow The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Legal eagle feathers?
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Native Americans are pushing back against attempts to keep them from wearing eagle feathers. The federal government restricts possession of eagle feathers as part of its effort to protect eagles. But early this month a California school system, under judicial pressure, allowed a high-school senior to wear an eagle feather to his graduation ceremony. Last month a federal district judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a Texas Apache who wanted to regain eagle feathers the government took from him and others in 2006.

Vernon Ward Jr., of the Pit River Tribe in California, said the eagle feather is a religious, not just a cultural, symbol: “The eagle is the one that flies highest to the Creator.” Becket Fund lawyer Luke Goodrich said, “The government has no business sending undercover agents to raid peaceful Native American religious ceremonies.”

That’s what happened in 2006 when Robert Soto, a Lipan Apache and the pastor of McAllen (Texas) Grace Brethren Church, participated in a powwow: A federal agent interrupted the ceremony after seeing Soto and others with eagle feathers. The agent threatened prosecution unless they abandoned them. They did so, but they sued to get them back.

Some Native Americans receive special permits to possess eagle feathers if they are members of federally recognized tribes, but the Lipan Apache Tribe lacks such recognition. The district court sided with the government, granting summary judgment.

Then along came Hobby Lobby, last June’s landmark Supreme Court decision. It offers an important interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a 1993 law requiring strict scrutiny when a generally applicable law creates a substantial burden for the free exercise of religion. Hobby Lobby says the government should seek the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling state interest.

Given Hobby Lobby and other precedents, the 5th Circuit reversed the earlier decision and remanded the case back to the district court. The 5th Circuit seriously questioned whether the government could protect eagles only by restricting feathers to permit-holders from specific Native American tribes.

The government gave Soto back his feathers this March, but Soto didn’t hold a celebration, much less a powwow. The government gave him a dispensation to keep those feathers, but he has no right to give them to anyone, even to his descendants, and other members of the congregation remain in legal limbo. So the lawsuit continues.

A ‘puzzling’ booklet

National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson says his group’s new book, When God and Science Meet, attempts “to bring faith and science onto the same page.” But Center for Science and Culture research coordinator Casey Luskin calls the booklet “puzzling,” because it seems “designed to make the reader feel good while never actually providing them with real scientific discussions or real answers to hard questions.”

The book offers a welcome interdisciplinary approach: Historian Mark Noll shares space with biologist Dorothy Boorse and pastor John Ortberg, among others. But it is low on specifics and does not deal with the movement toward theistic evolution at some evangelical colleges. Luskin said the book offers “a nice theological critique” of Carl Sagan’s quip that we live on an “insignificant planet,” but he notes, “Sagan meant that claim also as a scientific one, and the booklet could be far more powerful if it also offered a scientific critique of that claim, because we now know that Earth is a special planet with many unique features that make it ideally suited for life.” —J.B.


James Bruce

James is an associate professor of philosophy at John Brown University and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.

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