Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association

RESPONDENT:Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association
LOCATION:Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation

DOCKET NO.: 86-1013
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 485 US 439 (1988)
ARGUED: Nov 30, 1987
DECIDED: Apr 19, 1988

Andrew J. Pincus – Argued the cause for the petitioners
Marilyn B. Miles – Argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

The United States Forest Service was considering building a paved roadway that would cut through the Chimney Rock area of the Six Rivers National Forest. It was also considering timber harvesting in the area. A study commissioned by the Forest Service reported that harvesting the Chimney Rock area would irreparably damage grounds that had historically been used by Native Americans to conduct religious rituals. After the Forest Service decided to construct a road, the Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association took action against Secretary of Agriculture Richard Lyng.


Did the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause prohibit the government from harvesting or developing the Chimney Rock area?

Media for Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 30, 1987 in Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 19, 1988 in Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association

Sandra Day O’Connor:

In the Lyng case No. 86-1013, the case comes to us on certiorari from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

It involves a dispute about the scope of the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.

The Court of Appeals approved a permanent injunction forbidding the Federal Government from constructing a road through the Chimney Rock area of the Six Rivers National Forest in California.

This area of the National Forest has traditionally been used for religious rituals by members of three American-Indian tribes that live nearby.

Those religious practices which require privacy, silence, and an undisturbed natural setting can only be carried out at specific sites in the Chimney Rock area.

The Court below found that the proposed road would so disturb the natural environment that it would virtually destroy the Indians’ ability to practice their religion.

The Court also found that the government had failed to demonstrate a compelling interest in completing the project.

Using a balancing test to weight the Indians’ interest and that of the United States, the Court of Appeals concluded that the Indians’ right to their free exercise of their religion would be unconstitutionally infringed by the government’s proposed activities in the Chimney Rock area.

In an opinion filed today, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Two terms ago in the case of Bowen against Roy, we held that the Free Exercise Clause cannot be understood to require the government to conduct its own internal affairs in ways that comport with the religious belief of particular citizens.

In that case as in this one, the government’s management of its internal affairs threaten to interfere significantly with the ability of private people to pursue spiritual fulfillment according to their own religious beliefs.

In neither case, however, did the government’s proposed action threatened either to coerce religious adherence and the acting contrary to their belief or to penalize religious adherence for exercising their religious freedom.

Our decision in Bowen against Roy, therefore, compels us to conclude that the free exercise challenge to the government’s construction project must fail.

We note, however, that the government’s right to manage the public lands need not and should not discourage it from accommodating religious practices like those at issue in this case.

The American-Indian Religious Freedom Act establishes a national policy in favor of protecting and preserving the right of Indians to visit their traditional religious sites and to carry out their traditional rituals.

Although this statute does not create enforceable legal rights, it does encourage the government to minimize the extent to which its management of the public lands interferes with Indian religious practices.

In this case the government has planned various ways for minimizing the effects that its road will have on the Chimney Rock area and nothing in our decision should discourage such ameliorative measures.

The case is remanded for deciding certain statutory issues, which we have not addressed.

Justice Brennan has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Marshall and Blackmun have joined.

Justice Kennedy took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.