Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association
In Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, the Supreme Court considered a free exercise challenge to the U.S. Forest Service’s construction of a road through an area used by certain American Indian groups for religious ceremonies. These rituals required privacy, silence, and an undisturbed natural setting, and the group argued that construction of the road would make it impossible for them to exercise their religious rights. The Court refused to enjoin construction of the road despite the fact that the road might virtually destroy the Indians’ ability to practice their religion. Citing Bowen v. Roy, the Court reaffirmed its holding that the Free Exercise Clause does not prevent all government action that may have incidental effects which interfere with the practice of certain religions. That is to say, the Free Exercise Clause does not require the government to act in ways that comport with the religious beliefs of individual citizens; the clause only protects individuals from certain forms of government compulsion. The government’s action here did not coerce the American Indian tribe into violating their beliefs, nor did it penalize the exercise of those beliefs by denying adherents benefits or privileges enjoyed by other citizens. Thus, while the Court noted that the government should act in a manner sensitive to the religious beliefs of its citizens when possible, nothing in the Constitution prevented the government from constructing the road.
Opens in a new window