Last year, the Protect The First Foundation filed an amicus brief urging the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to hear the plight of the Yakima Nation and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. These two Native American groups sued when the federal government widened U.S. Highway 26 in Eastern Oregon, demolishing an ancient stone altar and grove of trees sacred to the religion of these Americans.
The U.S. District Court in Oregon had first found that the U.S. Federal Highway Administration had not violated the religious rights of the tribes under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). A Ninth Circuit Court panel further did not see that it had the authority, or a need, to attempt remediation. Compounding injury with insult, the Ninth Circuit ruled the government was not responsible for the destruction of the sacred site and dismissed the case as moot. Accordingly, Protect The 1st, along with the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, the Sikh Coalition, and the American Islamic Congress, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the matter.
Perhaps not wanting to face a High Court notably protective of the First Amendment and religious expression, the federal government quickly agreed to a settlement. The government will replant the grove of native trees, pay for the reconstruction of the sacred stone altar, and recognize the historic use of the site by Native Americans. The restoration of the sacred site is set to be completed by spring 2024. The good news comes from the Becket Foundation, which helped the tribes file their petition.
“Our nation has a long, dark history of needlessly destroying Native American sacred sites without consequence,” said Luke Goodrich, Vice President and Senior Counsel at Becket. In a thread on X (Twitter), Goodrich said, “The government can never fully undo the damage it caused in this case. But this agreement is one step in a better direction--allowing these tribal members to resume religious practices that the government had taken away.”
The stunning about-face comes despite the government’s consecutive wins in lower and appellate courts. Perhaps the government took note that Justice Neil Gorsuch has ruled in favor of Native American tribes in nearly a dozen cases, often casting his vote to give the Court’s liberal wing a rare majority.
The settlement comes as other cases involving Native American land are still pending. The Ninth Circuit is still considering Apache Stronghold v. United States. In that case, the federal government is seeking to give away another Native sacred site to a multinational mining giant which plans to turn the site into a copper mine.
Protect The 1st congratulates the Yakima Nation and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde as well as the Becket Foundation for their victory. The religious liberty protections of the First Amendment apply to all Americans, but most especially to religious minorities more vulnerable than faiths with many adherents.
We hope this settlement will send a message to careless government bureaucrats to be more respectful of Native American religious sites. We especially hope this same change of heart will also come for the Apache and their case now before the Ninth Circuit.