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

LYNG v. NORTHWEST INDIAN CEMETERY 485 U.S. 439 (1988)

The U.S. Forest Service planned to build a paved road and allow timber harvesting in an area held sacred by certain american indians. The Indians used the area, now part of a national forest, to perform religious rituals. The Supreme Court held 5–3 that the Forest Service action would not violate the free exercise clause of the first amendment.

Writing for the majority, Justice sandra day o'connor maintained that the free exercise clause was not implicated here because the Indians would not be coerced by the government's action into violating their religious beliefs. Hence, the government did not have to supply a compelling state interest to justify its action. The fact that the government activity would interfere with the Indians' religion was irrelevant because "the Free Exercise Clause is written in terms of what the govenment cannot do to the individual, not in terms of what the individual can extract from the government." Moreover, even if the Forest Service actions should 'virtually destroy the Indians' ability to practice their religion,' … the Constitution simply does not provide a principle that could justify upholding" their claims.

Writing for the dissenters, Justice william j. brennan rejected the majority's narrow reading of the free exercise clause and argued that because the beliefs and activities implicated by the government action were "central" to the religion of the American Indians, the government must supply a compelling state interest to justify its action.

John G. West, Jr.
(1992)

(see also: Religious Liberty.)

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