485 U.S. 439 (1988), 86-1013, Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association

Docket Nº:No. 86-1013
Citation:485 U.S. 439, 108 S.Ct. 1319, 99 L.Ed.2d 534, 56 U.S.L.W. 4292
Party Name:Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association
Case Date:April 19, 1988
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 439

485 U.S. 439 (1988)

108 S.Ct. 1319, 99 L.Ed.2d 534, 56 U.S.L.W. 4292

Lyng

v.

Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association

No. 86-1013

United States Supreme Court

April 19, 1988

Argued November 30, 1987

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

In 1982, the United States Forest Service prepared a final environmental impact statement for constructing a paved road through federal land, including the Chimney Rock area of the Six Rivers National Forest. This area, as reported in a study commissioned by the Service, has historically been used by certain American Indians for religious rituals that depend upon privacy, silence, and an undisturbed natural setting. Rejecting the study's recommendation that the road not be completed through the Chimney Rock area because it would irreparably damage the sacred areas, and also rejecting alternative routes outside the National Forest, the Service selected a route through the Chimney Rock area that avoided archeological sites and was removed as far as possible from the sites used by the Indians for specific spiritual activities. At about the same time, the Service also adopted a management plan allowing for timber harvesting in the same area, but providing for protective zones around all the religious sites identified in the study. After exhausting administrative remedies, respondents -- an Indian organization, individual Indians, nature organizations and members thereof, and the State of California -- filed suit in Federal District Court challenging both the road-building and timber harvesting decisions. The court issued a permanent injunction that prohibited the Government from constructing the Chimney Rock section of the road or putting the timber harvesting plan into effect, holding, inter alia, that such actions would violate respondent Indians' rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and would violate certain federal statutes. The Court of Appeals affirmed in pertinent part.

Held:

1. The courts below did not clearly explain whether -- in keeping with the principle requiring that courts reach constitutional questions only when necessary -- they determined that a decision on the First Amendment issue was necessary because it might entitle respondents to relief beyond that to which they were entitled on their statutory claims. The structure and wording of the District Court's injunction, however, suggest that the statutory holding would not have supported all the relief

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granted, and the Court of Appeals' silence as to the necessity of reaching the First Amendment issue may have reflected its understanding that the District Court's injunction necessarily rested in part on constitutional grounds. Because it appears reasonably likely that the First Amendment issue was necessary to the decisions below, and because the Government is confident [108 S.Ct. 1321] that it can cure the statutory defects identified below, it would be inadvisable for this Court to vacate and remand without addressing the constitutional question on the merits. Pp. 445-447.

2. The Free Exercise Clause does not prohibit the Government from permitting timber harvesting in the Chimney Rock area or constructing the proposed road. Pp. 447-458.

(a) In Bowen v. Roy, 476 U.S. 693 -- which held that a federal statute requiring States to use Social Security numbers in administering certain welfare programs did not violate Indian religious rights under the Free Exercise Clause -- this Court rejected the same kind of challenge that respondents assert. Just as in Roy, the affected individuals here would not be coerced by the Government's action into violating their religious beliefs; nor would the governmental action penalize the exercise of religious rights by denying religious adherents an equal share of the rights, benefits, and privileges enjoyed by other citizens. Incidental effects of government programs, which may interfere with the practice of certain religions, but which have no tendency to coerce individuals into acting contrary to their religious beliefs, do not require government to bring forward a compelling justification for its otherwise lawful actions. The Free Exercise Clause is written in terms of what the government cannot do to the individual, not in terms of what the individual can exact from the government. Even assuming that the Government's actions here will virtually destroy the Indians' ability to practice their religion, the Constitution simply does not provide a principle that could justify upholding respondents' legal claims. Pp. 447-453.

(b) The Government's right to the use of its own lands need not and should not discourage it from accommodating religious practices like those engaged in by the Indian respondents. The Government has taken numerous steps to minimize the impact that construction of the road will have on the Indians' religious activities -- such as choosing the route that best protects sites of specific rituals from adverse audible intrusions and planning steps to reduce the visual impact of the road on the surrounding country. Such solicitude accords with the policy and requirements of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Contrary to respondents' contention, however, that Act does not create any enforceable legal right that could authorize the District Court's injunction. Pp. 453-455.

795 F.2d 688, reversed and remanded.

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O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, STEVENS, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 458. KENNEDY, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

O'CONNOR, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us to consider whether the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause prohibits the Government from permitting timber harvesting in, or constructing a road through, a portion of a National Forest that has traditionally

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been used for religious purposes by members of three American Indian tribes in northwestern California. We conclude that it does not.

I

As part of a project to create a paved 75-mile road linking two California towns, Gasquet and Orleans, the United States Forest Service has upgraded 49 miles of previously unpaved roads on federal land. In order to complete this project (the G-O road), the Forest Service must build a 6-mile paved segment through the Chimney [108 S.Ct. 1322] Rock section of the Six Rivers National Forest. That section of the forest is situated between two other portions of the road that are already complete.

In 1977, the Forest Service issued a draft environmental impact statement that discussed proposals for upgrading an existing unpaved road that runs through the Chimney Rock area. In response to comments on the draft statement, the Forest Service commissioned a study of American Indian cultural and religious sites in the area. The Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation adjoins the Six Rivers National Forest, and the Chimney Rock area has historically been used for religious purposes by Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa Indians. The commissioned study, which was completed in 1979, found that the entire area "is significant as an integral and indispensable part of Indian religious conceptualization and practice." App. 181. Specific sites are used for certain rituals, and

successful use of the [area] is dependent upon and facilitated by certain qualities of the physical environment, the most important of which are privacy, silence, and an undisturbed natural setting.

Ibid. (footnote omitted). The study concluded that constructing a road along any of the available routes

would cause serious and irreparable damage to the sacred areas which are an integral and necessary part of the belief systems and lifeway of Northwest California Indian peoples.

Id. at 182. Accordingly, the report recommended that the G-O road not be completed.

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In 1982, the Forest Service decided not to adopt this recommendation, and it prepared a final environmental impact statement for construction of the road. The Regional Forester selected a route that avoided archeological sites and was removed as far as possible from the sites used by contemporary Indians for specific spiritual activities. Alternative routes that would have avoided the Chimney Rock area altogether were rejected because they would have required the acquisition of private land, had serious soil stability problems, and would in any event have traversed areas having ritualistic value to American Indians. See id. at 217-218. At about the same time, the Forest Service adopted a management plan allowing for the harvesting of significant amounts of timber in this area of the forest. The management plan provided for one-half mile protective zones around all the religious sites identified in the report that had been commissioned in connection with the G-O road.

After exhausting their administrative remedies, respondents -- an Indian organization, individual Indians, nature organizations and individual members of those organizations, and the State of California -- challenged both the roadbuilding and timber harvesting decisions in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. Respondents claimed that the Forest Service's decisions violated the Free Exercise Clause, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA), 86 Stat. 896, as amended, 33 U.S.C. § 1251 et seq., the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), 83 Stat. 852, 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq., several other federal statutes, and governmental trust responsibilities to Indians living on the Hoopa Valley Reservation.

After a trial, the District Court issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the Government from constructing the Chimney Rock section...

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