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Archive for Wednesday, November 17, 1993

RELIGION LAW STILL LACKING, SAYS INDIAN SCHOLAR

November 17, 1993

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President Clinton signed a religious freedom act, but a Lawrence Native American scholar says the bill doesn't go far enough to protect Indian religion.

Native American religious practices remain subject to government interference and prohibition despite religious freedom legislation signed Tuesday by President Clinton, a Lawrence Native American scholar said today.

Henrietta Mann, a professor of Native American Studies at the University of Montana, who this year is a visiting professor at Haskell Indian Nations University, said the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not protect the ability of Native Americans to use peyote or eagle feathers in religious ceremonies, nor does it protect Indian religious sites.

"It's important for all Americans but it still does not get at the heart of the issue for Native Americans," Mann said. "We still have a long way to go in having our first amendment rights restored to us. America has to be aware of the fact that the act does not protect the religious freedom of this country's first people."

The legislation signed Tuesday, supported by a broad coalition of civil liberties and religious groups, was designed to strengthen religious freedoms that were weakened by a 1990 Supreme Court decision.

The Supreme Court case involved two men in Oregon who were denied unemployment benefits after losing their jobs because they used peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, as part of a religious ritual.

Peyote is illegal in most states; Native Americans want a specific legal exemption to protect their use of it in religious rituals.

The court upheld laws that infringe on religious freedom so long as they serve a valid government purpose and are not aimed at inhibiting religion.

Bill supporters said the Supreme Court ruling had enabled local and federal governments to run roughshod over religious practices without good cause. Some examples: Autopsies were performed despite families' religious beliefs, bureaucrats meddled in church designs and an Amish community was told to put orange reflectors on the back of their buggies.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act poses a stricter test -- one used by courts before the 1990 ruling. That test requires that restrictive laws serve a compelling government interest in a way that poses the lightest possible burden on religious freedom.

``This really restores the First Amendment and is the most important religious liberty legislation in our nation's history,'' said John Buchanan, vice president of the liberal People for the American Way.

Clinton said the law, which passed easily in Congress, holds government ``to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone's free exercise of religion.''

Mann, however, said Native American religion will not be fully protected until their practices, and religious sites, are specifically protected by law.

"Even though the compelling interest determination is going to be applied, it still does not really get to the heart of completely reversing the Supreme Court's decisions," she said.

@reefer:Should a law be passed protecting Native Americans' use of peyote and eagle feathers in religious ceremonies and religious sites? Answer today's Access Poll question on page 2B.

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