Today, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, through its Institute for Public Affairs, welcomed the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit which let stand National Park Service policies designed to accommodate the religious needs of Native Americans at Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming. The IPA had joined with other religious groups in a friend of the court brief in support of the Native Americans. The brief was drafted by the Washington based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The case, Bear Lodge Multiple Use Assoc. v. Bruce Babbit, Sec’y of the Interior, arose from the fact that the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe regard Devils Tower as a religious site. In the month of June, these Native Americans conduct religious worship at Devils Tower.
In attempting to accommodate the Native Americans’ religious sensitivities, that National Park Service undertook the following steps at Devils Tower: the Park Service posted a sign at the base of the tower alerting hikers and climbers to its religious significance; the Park Service implemented an educational program at the park’s visitor center that includes teaching about the Native American’s religious views of the site; and Park Service employees would seek to persuade rock climbers to voluntarily refrain from climbing the face of Devils Tower in the month of June.
These National Park Service practices were challenged as unconstitutional violations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Last year, a federal district court ruled in favor of the Park Service. The court held that the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the placement of the sign or the educational program. The court further held that the policy of discouraging rock climbing at Devils Tower in June is an appropriate and constitutional accommodation of religion, and not an unconstitutional promotion of religion.
This ruling was challenged by the plaintiffs and was affirmed this week by the Court of Appeals. The court agreed that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring this challenge; it did not address whether the Park Service practices were an appropriate accommodation of religion.
IPA director, Nathan Diament, stated that “while we would have preferred the court explicitly affirm principles of religious accommodation, we are certainly pleased with the result that allows the Park Service to respect religious practices.”