The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, recently decided an interesting religious freedom case. In Navajo Nation v. U.S. Forest Service, American Indians sought to prohibit the federal government from allowing the use of artificial snow for skiing on a portion of a public mountain considered sacred in their religion. Apparently, the government planned to use recycled wastewater, which contains 0.0001% human waste and would, in the view of some of the plaintiffs, desecrate the entire mountain, deprecate their religious ceremonies, and injure their religious sensibilities. This, they argued, would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The RFRA, in general, allows plaintiffs to challenge government practices that substantially burden the exercise of religion. If there is a substantial burden, the government must demonstrate that the burden is the least restrictive means to achieve a compelling interest. It was enacted in response to a Supreme Court decision that said, essentially, no such claim could be brought against neutral laws of general applicability under the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause.
The Ninth Circuit (over three dissents) rejected the challenge. That doesn’t surprise me. Any rule that required accommodation of the plaintiffs’ claim here would likely result in religiously based gridlock on a host of policy questions. The outcome tracks an earlier Free Exercise decision. What interests me is the court’s reasoning.