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.

What would you do if an undercover federal agent came into your church service, confiscated your communion wine, and threatened you with criminal prosecution? Sound crazy? Not if you are a Native American.

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

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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 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which prohibits possession of eagle feathers without a permit. Under the law, permits are available for museums, scientists, zoos, farmers, and “other interests” – such as power companies, which kill hundreds of eagles every year. They are also available 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 – was not.

With the help of the Becket Fund, Mr. Soto challenged this arbitrary law in federal court, arguing that it violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in favor of Mr. Soto, relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby and finding that the federal government failed to justify its restriction on religious freedom.

Soon after, the federal government entered a historic settlement agreement with Mr. Soto and over 400 members of his congregation. The agreement recognizes their right to freely use eagle feathers in observance of their Native American faith and promises that the government will reconsider its policies for enforcing feather restrictions in the future.

Mr. Soto put it best: “This is a victory not just for me and my people, but for all people of faith. If the government can take away my freedom, it can take away yours. So we have to stand together.”

Read the Top Ten Facts about this case. 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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