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Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protection Association

The Majority Opinion

The Court ruled 5-3 (Justice Kennedy abstained) in favor of the petitioner on constitutional grounds and remanded the case for further proceedings on the statutory issues, which the government claimed it could resolve. The majority found that both lower courts had not proceeded according to the principle of judicial economy, under which constitutional questions are not addressed unless necessary. Had they acted in accord with judicial economy, they would have determined if a constitutional finding on behalf of the respondents would have granted them more relief than had they prevailed on statutory grounds alone. If the respondents would gain no additional relief on constitutional grounds, then a constitutional decision was "unnecessary and therefore inappropriate."

The injunction consisted of four sections, two of which forbade timber harvesting and road building until compliance with environmental statutes could be proven. The sections dealing with the immediate Chimney Rock area, which was the subject of the First Amendment claim, prohibited the same activities, this time without any qualifying language. The majority found that this part of the injunction must have been supported at least in part on First Amendment grounds, since such broad relief would not be granted on statutory grounds alone.

The majority rejected the respondent group's First Amendment claim, basing their decision on Bowen v. Roy (1986), in which two Native American applicants for state welfare benefits objected to the state's use of a Social Security number for their stepdaughter on religious grounds. O'Connor's opinion quoted Roy: "The Free Exercise Clause affords an individual protection from certain forms of governmental compulsion; it does not afford an individual a right to dictate the conduct of the Government's internal procedures." The land was publicly owned, and the plan did not coerce individuals into actions contrary to their religious beliefs; nor was any person denied "an equal share of the rights, benefits, and privileges enjoyed by other citizens." The majority rejected respondents' attempts to distinguish this case from Bowen v. Roy because "the government action is not at some physically removed location where it places no restriction on what a practitioner may do" and the use of a Social Security number "did not interfere" with the practice of religion, simply by refusing to make the comparison:

Since the Court cannot determine the truth of the underlying religious beliefs that led to the religious objections . . . we cannot say that the one form of incidental interference with an individual's spiritual activities should be subjected to a different constitutional analysis than the other.

The Court continued by rejecting comparisons to various other cases in which challenges to government programs on religious grounds were sustained, in one instance a case involving compulsory school attendance, because in these cases the programs required coercive action. In absence of such coercion, the majority declared that "government simply could not operate" if every program had to be in compliance with the religious beliefs of every American, however sincere and deeply held. Such controversies are inevitable in a diverse society, and any attempts to "reconcile the various competing demands on government" were the function of legislatures, not the Constitution and the Court.

Further discussion noted that the government took many steps to ameliorate the impact of the road on the area, and it rejected the respondents' claim that the injunction was valid under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which the Court declared was in fact a policy statement only and did not create any "cause of action or any judicially enforceable rights."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protection Association - Significance, The Majority Opinion, The Dissent, Impact, Further Readings