ACLU Secures Religious Freedom For American Indians At Wyoming Prison

July 30, 2008

Corrections Officials Had Refused To Allow Northern Arapaho Man Access To Eagle Feathers Crucial To Religious Prayers

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

RAWLINS, WY – Corrections officials at the Wyoming State Penitentiary (WSP) have agreed to allow American Indian prisoners access to eagle feathers for use in their traditional Indian religious practices.

According to a court order, prison officials must allow American Indian prisoners to posses up to four eagle feathers in their individual cells, as well as a feather fan comprised of more than four feathers that can be used in group religious activities and stored elsewhere at WSP.

The case settles a lawsuit filed earlier this year in which the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Wyoming represented Andrew John Yellowbear, a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe incarcerated at WSP since 2006. Yellowbear claimed that his religious freedom was being violated by WSP officials who refused to allow him to possess eagle feathers – the single most sacred religious symbol to the tribe and most American Indians. 

"The fact that officials at WSP will now ensure that American Indian prisoners have access to eagle feathers is a great victory for religious freedom," said Stephen Pevar, staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program who, along with Jennifer Horvath, staff attorney for the ACLU of Wyoming, represented Yellowbear. "The feathers are used to communicate prayers to the Creator and to receive answers to prayers. Denying Mr. Yellowbear these highly spiritual feathers was akin to denying Catholics access to a rosary or crucifix."

Prison officials had previously allowed Yellowbear to have only one feather. That feather was confiscated after Yellowbear filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming last January challenging the prison's policy and asking that he be allowed to possess 10 feathers – the maximum number of loose feathers the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife will provide under federal regulations.   

The lawsuit raised claims under the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which bars states from imposing a substantial burden on a prisoner's exercise of religion unless it furthers a compelling interest and is the least restrictive means available. Other American Indian prisoners at WSP have in the past been permitted to possess entire eagle wings for religious purposes, and corrections officials provided no evidence of security problems that have arisen as a result of the possession of multiple eagle feathers. 

"Religious freedom is too precious a right to be capriciously denied to individuals who are at the mercy of prison officials," said Horvath.

Shortly after he arrived at WSP in July of 2006, Yellowbear applied to the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife for permission to have bald eagle feathers shipped to him from the National Eagle Repository in Colorado. The application was approved in March 2007, but despite this approval both WSP's warden and the director of the Wyoming Department of Corrections have not allowed Yellowbear access to any eagle feathers from the repository.

Bald eagles, removed from the U.S. List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 2007, are nonetheless protected by federal law, which stipulates that only individuals who are enrolled in a federally recognized American Indian tribe are legally authorized to obtain eagle feathers for religious or spiritual use. The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife can grant American Indians permission to possess eagle feathers for religious purposes. The federal court order in the Yellowbear case will allow American Indians to make use of this opportunity.

Additional information about the ACLU's Racial Justice Program can be found online at: www.aclu.org/racialjustice/index.html

Additional information about the ACLU of Wyoming can be found online at: www.aclu-wy.org

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