Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Association

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LYNG V. NORTHWEST INDIAN CEMETERY ASSOCIATION, 485 U.S. 439 (1988). The Supreme Court ruled that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) of 1978 and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution do not protect the rights of American Indians to practice their religions at off-reservation public lands held by the U.S government. Beginning in the 1960s, the Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa Indians of northern California began protesting attempts by the U.S. Forest Service to build roads through Indian sacred sites in California's National Forests. AIRFA stipulates that federal agencies examine their practices in an attempt "to protect and preserve Native American religious cultural rights and practices," and during the lower court hearings, Forest Service experts agreed that their proposed road threatened the "ceremonies …of [Indian] religious beliefs and practices." Overturning the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which had affirmed the U.S. district court's decision, the Supreme Court ruled that unless there was direct government intent to infringe upon Indian religious practices or direct government coercion of individuals to act against their religious beliefs, then the First Amendment offered no protection against governmental action that impacted upon, or even threatened to destroy, an American Indian sacred site. This ruling severely weakened the AIRFA and the legal basis for American Indian religious freedoms.


Davis, Mary B., ed. Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1994.

Prucha, Francis Paul. Documents of United States Indian Policy. 3d ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.


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Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Association

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