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Jail time over eagle feathers? One Native American's religious freedom fight

Banner bald eagle feathers credit leo reynolds via flickr cc by na sa 20 cna 5 29 15

Bald eagle feathers. Credit: Leo Reynolds via Flickr (CC BY-NA-SA 2.0).

A Native American tribe leader has been threatened with time in prison for his religious use of eagle feathers, and his case is currently before federal court. “This is a particularly egregious case where the federal government sent an undercover agent into a core religious ceremony, confiscated religious property, and criminally prosecuted people simply for practicing their religion,” stated Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, representing the leader Pastor Soto. Pastor Soto is a religious leader in Texas’ Liban Apache tribe, recognized as a Native American tribe at the state level but not the federal level. He uses eagle feathers in religious rituals, but eagles are protected by federal law and the religious group is not recognized at the federal level. Undercover federal agents invaded his ceremony in 2006, confiscated the feathers, and threatened him with up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The operation was “violating the circle which we consider sacred,” Pastor Soto said in a video circulated by the Becket Fund. “I think if I remember anything of that day was the children running around, and some were crying and some were trying to hide.” “It was violating everything we were as native people,” he said. Eagles are protected by federal law and thus their feathers generally cannot be used or sold. However, many Native Americans give religious and cultural significance to eagles and “federally recognized” tribes can apply for a permit to use feathers that are stored in the National Eagle Repository for religious purposes. Official Native American tribes can apply to use as many feathers as they want, Goodrich said. The burden to become officially recognized is a “byzantine application process” where a tribe must prove that it has sustained its communal and cultural identity throughout the years. This is hard to do when the U.S. government had quelled various native practices in the past through “forced assimilation,” Goodrich explained. “Nobody doubts that this is a real tribe,” he added. The Liban Apaches have made treaties in the past with Mexico and the Republic of Texas, he said. Pastor Soto recently won his case at the Fifth Circuit Court level and got the feathers back. The Department of Justice wants the case dismissed, but Becket Fund says it isn’t over as once Pastor Soto dies the feathers will go back to the federal government instead of staying within his family and the tribe. They want the religious exception for use of eagle feathers to apply not just to officially-recognized Native American tribes. On Wednesday, a federal district court judge ruled against both parties. No one in the tribe but Pastor Soto can use the feathers, but the case is still open regarding the wildlife law’s application to Native American tribes. The Becket Fund will file an injunction for summary judgment in the case, where the judge could rule in their favor without a trial by the end of 2015. If this movement is refused then the case will move to a trial in 2016. The case is very important for religious liberty of all Americans, not just Native Americans, the Becket Fund argued. If the federal government can raid a religious ceremony and confiscate materials considered sacred by the aggrieved party, what can’t it do, asked Goodrich.

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