Saturday, August 09, 2008

9th Circuit En Banc Rejects Tribes' RFRA Challenge To Snowbowl Expansion

In Navajo Nation v. United States Forest Service, (9th Cir., Aug. 8, 2008), in an 8-3 en banc decision, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not bar the Forest Service from approving the use of recycled waste water to make artificial snow at Arizona's Snowbowl ski resort, which operates on federal land. Several Indian tribes sued claiming that the plan will spiritually contaminate the San Francisco Peaks that they believe to be sacred. Rejecting the conclusion reached last year by a 3-judge panel (see prior posting), the full court used the case to clarify the 9th Circuit's interpretation of "substantial burden" under RFRA. The majority held:

RFRA’s stated purpose is to “restore the compelling interest test as set forth in Sherbert v. Verner ... and Wisconsin v. Yoder.... Under RFRA, a "substantial burden" is imposed only when individuals are forced to choose between following the tenets of their religion and receiving a governmental benefit (Sherbert) or coerced to act contrary to their religious beliefs by the threat of civil or criminal sanctions (Yoder)....

The only effect of the proposed upgrades is on the Plaintiffs’ subjective, emotional religious experience. That is, the presence of recycled wastewater ... will decrease the spiritual fulfillment they get from practicing their religion on the mountain. Nevertheless, under Supreme Court precedent, the diminishment of spiritual fulfillment—serious though it may be—is not a "substantial burden" on the free exercise of religion.

The dissenting opinion was written by Judge Fletcher, who had authored the 3-judge panel's decision: Criticizing the majority's opinion at length, he wrote:
The majority characterizes the Indians’ religious belief and exercise as merely a "subjective spiritual experience." Though I would not choose precisely those words, they come close to describing what the majority thinks it is not describing — a genuine religious belief and exercise.... [R]eligious exercise invariably, and centrally, involves a "subjective spiritual experience."
Today's Vail (CO) Daily reported on the decision. The Save the Peaks Coalition yesterday issued a statement strongly criticizing the decision. [Thanks to Robert H.Thomas for the lead.]