Saturday, March 28, 2015

Alaska Free Exercise Clause Defense To Illegal Salmon Fishing Is Rejected

In Phillip v. State of Alaska, (AK Ct. App., March 27, 2015), an Alaska court of appeals refused to dismiss criminal charges against 13 Yup'ik Eskimo fishermen charged with violating the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s emergency orders restricting king salmon fishing on the Kuskokwim River.  The Yup'ik claimed that their conduct is protected by the free exercise clause of the Alaska Constitution. The Alaska Supreme Court has held that the test under the state Constitution for whether an individual is entitled to a religious exemption from a facially neutral law requires assessing the validity of the individual's religious interest and then determining whether the State can prove a compelling interest that would justify curtailing the religiously-based practice.  Applying that test here, the appeals court said:
[I]t would seriously hamper the Department’s ability to manage the fishery for sustained yield if courts required the State to show that each emergency action it took was the least restrictive alternative available. ... Instead, we agree with the district court that the question ... is whether the State can meet its burden of proving that its compelling interest in maintaining a healthy and sustainable king salmon population would be harmed if the court granted the religious exemption sought by the defendants.... [T]he State met that burden here.
AP reports on the decision.