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Background Information

The United States Forest Service wanted to build a six-mile connection between two roads and chose the Chimney Rock area of Six Rivers National Forest as the location.

They only made this choice after considering other alternatives because the area had been historically used by Native Americans for their religious rituals. These ceremonies required privacy, silence, and an undisturbed natural setting. A primary characteristic of Native American religion is the belief in sacred lands: land itself is regarded as sacred, living, and having siginficant spiritual qualities.

The rituals performed on their holy sites are regarded as being particularly holy for the purpose of honoring the land itself, of gaining "medicine" or spiritual power. Because the Forest Service intended to put a road through here, Native Americans filed suit claiming that it would constitute an impermissible burden on their freedom of religious exerciese.

Court Decision

By a 5-3 vote, with Justice O'Conner writing the majority opinion, the Supreme Court allowed the road to be built. The Court did acknowledge that the road would in fact be devastating to their religious practice, but simply found this to be regrettable.

The Court argued that the Free Exercise Clause was not violated because the Native Americans were not actually prevented from engaging in their religious practices. It was true that the incidental effect of the government's actions would make the religious practices more difficult, that does not force individuals to act against to their religious convictions.

Moreover, becauase the land was within a national forest, it belonged to the government. For the Indians to try and prevent the government from using the land as it saw fit, they were clearly trying to impose their religious needs on the government itself. The Free Exercise Clause simply does not allow that. No one group can be allowed to have veto power over public programs that affect all citizens but do not prohibit the free exercise of anyone's religion.

However much we might wish that it were otherwise, government simply could not operate if it were required to satisfy every citizen's religious needs and desires. ... Whatever rights the Indians my have to the use of the area, however, those rights do not divest the Government of its right to use what is, after all, its land.

Significance

This decision held that the benefits of the road to society in general outweighed the preferences of the Native Americans. Moreover, the Supreme Court argued that the great diversity of religions in the United States would prevent the government from ever doing anything if every public program first had to be cleared by every religious group that might be affected.

This has been part of a recent court trend giving much less consideration to Indian rights and needs. Lately their desires, particularly religious needs, have had to give way to larger economic and political goals - not an unusual situation in American history.

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