Native Americans are being threatened and punished for using eagle feathers in their religious ceremonies. After a petition to the federal government, the Department of the Interior proposed a new rule that was open for public comment in July 2019. The comments are now being reviewed.
To see Becket’s comment and analysis of other submissions, click here.
Meet Pastor Robert Soto
Meet Pastor Robert Soto, an award-winning feather dancer and Lipan Apache religious leader. In 2006, while Pastor Soto was dancing in a sacred ceremony, an undercover federal agent infiltrated the tribe’s powwow, confiscated over forty eagle feathers, and threatened Pastor Soto with criminal prosecution unless he signed papers abandoning the feathers.
Why would an undercover agent invade a sacred Native American ceremony and threaten the participants with prosecution and imprisonment?
Because it is currently a federal crime for many Native Americans to possess eagle feathers for religious use.
Not Enough Protection
The federal government currently grants a narrow exemption for some Native Americans under the Morton Policy, but even that exemption is unstable and insufficient. The federal government also provides broad exemptions to big businesses, like power companies, for killing hundreds of eagles each year. But many Native Americans face fines and imprisonment for possessing even a single feather without ever harming any bird.
In 2014, a federal court ruled that the government’s criminal ban on the religious use of feathers violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Pastor Soto, a member of a state recognized tribe, won the right to have his feathers returned.
A New Policy
Pastor Soto is now asking the Department of Interior to apply his legal victory to every Native American and sincere believer, and YOU can help support this effort.
The existing policies and regulations governing the religious use of federally protected bird feathers at the Department of Interior are unjust, unlawful, and should be changed. The Fifth Circuit’s ruling only applies to Pastor Soto and the members of his religious organization, which means that thousands of other Native Americans currently risk criminal prosecution merely for practicing their faith.
The Department of Interior is currently considering a proposal to change this injustice and ensure that all Native Americans and sincere believers can practice their faith without the threat of criminal prosecution.
On April 30, 2019, the Department of Interior published Pastor Soto’s rulemaking petition in the Federal Register, and asked for public comments by July 16, 2019.
If the Department adopts the rule proposed in Pastor Soto’s petition, it would ensure that all Native Americans and sincere believers can practice their faith without the threat of criminal prosecution.