Federal Judge Refuses to Drop Religious Freedom Case Involving Tribe's Use of Eagle Feathers

By Lauretta Brown | June 2, 2015 | 9:16 AM EDT

It is illegal for most Americans to possess a bald eagle feather. (AP File Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – A Native American tribe scored another victory last week in its nine-year battle to legally use eagle feathers in traditional worship ceremonies.

On Wednesday, a federal judge in Texas rejected the government’s efforts to dismiss the religious freedom lawsuit.

The Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas is recognized by the State of Texas, but not by the federal government. Federal law permits the possession of eagle feathers by members of federally recognized tribes, museums, zoos, and a variety of “other interests.” 

Since Pastor Robert Soto’s tribe is not federally recognized, federal agents seized his eagle feathers in 2006 under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which prohibit the ownership of eagle feathers without a permit. Soto was threatened with criminal fines and prosecution.

Soto challenged the law, arguing that it violated both the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

In August 2014 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Soto, finding that the government “has not carried its burden in showing that the current permitting scheme does not violate RFRA” and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.

On March 10, 2015, the government returned the eagle feathers it had confiscated from Soto in an attempt to have the lawsuit dismissed, but the lawsuit continued as part of the larger effort to permit tribes that are not recognized by the federal government to possess eagle feathers for religious reasons.

Last week, a Texas judge rejected the government’s attempt to dismiss Soto’s lawsuit, setting the stage for a ruling on the eagle feathers law in late 2015 or early 2016.

“The government has no business sending undercover agents to raid peaceful Native American religious ceremonies,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, co-counsel in the case. “It’s time for an overbearing bureaucracy to face the music.”

“We were here today mainly because the government was trying to get rid of the case. It had given the feathers back to Mr. Soto and then claimed there was nothing else to be fighting over. But today, what happened was, the judge denied the government’s motion and said this case is going to go forward,” Goodrich added.

“In the early 1900s we had prohibition, but we were still allowed to use wine for sacramental purposes,” attorney Michael Bennett, with the international law firm of Baker Botts LLP also representing the tribe, said following the hearing. “What if the government decided some Christians can use wine but others cannot? That is what the government is doing here.”

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