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U.S. Supreme Court

Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery, 485 U.S. 439 (1988)

Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association

No. 86-1013

Argued November 30, 1987

Decided April 19, 1988

485 U.S. 439


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.


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 chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 485 U. S. 440

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 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. 485 U. S. 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. 485 U. S. 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. 485 U. S. 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. 485 U. S. 453-455.

795 F.2d 688, reversed and remanded. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 485 U. S. 441

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. 485 U. S. 458. KENNEDY, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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