Bear Lodge Multiple Use Association v. Babbitt and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Wyoming, (1998)

Image: Bear Lodge Multiple Use Association v. Babbitt and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Wyoming, (1998)

The Becket Fund often pushes back against attempts to abuse the Establishment Clause to stop the government from reasonably accommodating religious belief. In this case, several Native American tribes, including the Cheyenne River Sioux of Wyoming, had worked with the National Park Service to make arrangements to practice their ancient Lakota rituals undisturbed every June on ground sacred to them at Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming. The area also happens to be quite popular for rock climbers and visitors, so the Park Service implemented a sensible plan that discouraged rock climbing during June, posted signs marking the sacred ground, and started a cultural education program that informed visitors of Native American culture and religion.

But a group of climbing guides sued the Park Service, arguing that the efforts constituted an unconstitutionally made the Lakota religion an official state religion in Wyoming. The Becket Fund, along with a group of civil liberty and religious organizations, fought back with an amicus brief on behalf of the tribe. We got the case dismissed by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, who found that the climbers had failed to identify a personal injury and consequently had no standing to bring the case.

Cases like this are important to the Becket Fund, because we find it admirable when governments make a conscientious effort to protect religious minorities. The sad truth is that these lawsuits threaten religious expression in scores of other scenarios. The same arguments used by the climbers, while seemingly absurd, are used to challenge studying religious texts in high school history or English classes, or exhibiting religious elements in local cultural festivals and displays. If they succeed we will all be the poorer for it.

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