McAllen Grace Brethren Church v. Jewell

Robert Soto is an award-winning feather dancer and Lipan Apache religious leader. He and his tribe are fighting against the U.S. governments arbitrary law keeping them from using sacred eagle feathers.

The federal government invades a gathering of Native Americans, confiscates their property, and threatens to punish them if they resist. Sounds like tragic history from the 1800s, right? Robert Soto is living through it right now.

Mr. Soto is an award-winning feather dancer and Lipan Apache religious leader. In 2006, he attended a powwow – a traditional religious ceremony involving drumming, dancing, and Native American dress. But a federal agent cut the celebration short when he noticed that Mr. Soto and other American Indians possessed eagle feathers.

The agent interrogated Soto and other powwow participants, confiscated their feathers, and threatened them with criminal prosecution unless they signed papers abandoning their feathers. The agent claimed to be enforcing the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which prohibit possession of eagle feathers without a permit. The laws grant permits to museums, scientists, zoos, farmers, and “other interests.” They also grant permits for American Indian religious uses – but only if the Indian is a member of a “federally recognized tribe.”

Mr. Soto is a member of the Lipan Apache Tribe, which is recognized by historians, sociologists, and the State of Texas – but not by the federal government. Thus, while millions of other Americans are allowed to possess eagle feathers, Mr. Soto – a renowned feather dancer and ordained American Indian religious leader – cannot.

Mr. Soto challenged this arbitrary law in federal court, arguing that it violated both the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The government defended its policy on the ground that it doesn’t have enough permits to go around. But the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in favor of Mr. Soto, finding that the problem of limited permits “is one of the government’s own making.” As the Court put it: “The [government] cannot infringe on Soto’s rights by creating and maintaining an inefficient system and then blaming those inefficiencies for its inability to accommodate Soto.” It remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is co-counsel in the case, together with Milo Colton and Marisa Salazar of the Civil Rights Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Stay tuned for the government’s next move.

Will the government keep trying to dictate which American Indians can practice their religion and which cannot? Or will it allow Mr. Soto to practice his religion in peace? After facing criminal prosecution for practicing his religion, Mr. Soto is not asking for much – only his basic religious freedom.

On March 10, 2015, the federal government returned the eagle feathers it had confiscated from Mr. Soto exactly nine years before (see video). However, the government has not repealed this arbitrary law forbidding Mr. Soto and others like him from possessing eagle feathers, and it is still threatening Mr. Soto with punishment for practicing his faith. The Becket Fund continues to defend Mr. Soto from this unjust law.

UPDATE: On May 27, 2015, a federal district judge in Texas rejected the government’s attempt to dismiss Mr. Soto’s lawsuit. This clears the path for a ruling on the controversial eagle feathers rule in late 2015 or early 2016.

More photos and video available here.

For over a decade, the Becket Fund has actively defended the religious freedom of Native Americans. We currently represent members of the Klickitat and Cascade Tribes of the Yakima Nation in a case that calls government bureaucrats to account for the desecration of sacred burial grounds. We have urged government officials to protect the right of Native Americans to wear long hair or a symbolic headband in accordance with their faith. We have also filed legal briefs defending the right of Native American tribes to practice centuries-old religious ceremonies at sacred sites like the Medicine Wheel and Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming.

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Kristina Arriaga and Pastor Soto on Stossel

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Government infiltrates native pow wow, takes eagle feathers

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“Operation Powwow” discussed on WSJ Live

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