Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association (1988) was a landmark case in which the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause did not allow Indians to obtain a permanent injunction against a project by the US Forest Service to construct a road and harvest timber in an area of religious importance. Although the Court ruled against the Indian tribes, it merits a study of constitutional and philosophic questions and ultimately leads to a success for the losing plaintiffs.
The first glaring fundamental concern about the case is the meaning and application of the First Amendment. The Free Exercise Clause states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” It seems the central debate is the original public meaning of the word prohibiting. Does the word mean the denotation to formally ban something? Or would a law or program excessively burdening religious practice be invalid under the Clause? The Lyng Court decided that the Forest Service’s construction plan did not burden the Indians’ religion because it was neither a sanction nor fine. In effect, the Court endorsed a strict, denotative interpretation of the word prohibiting. Although the Indians believed the plan would essentially destroy their sacred grounds, the Court found that the completed plan would only modify the land to an acceptable extent. Thus, under this strict definition, anything short of forcing people to stop practicing their religion would not be invalid.
A second reason the Lyng Court ruled what it did is that the five justices in the majority wished to avoid a sort of political question of determining the strength and sincerity of plaintiffs’ religious beliefs. This “bright line” is exemplified by a quote from Justice O’Connor’s opinion: “We would accordingly be required to weight the value of every religious belief and practice that is said to be threatened by any government program. Unless a ‘showing of centrality’ is nothing but an assertion of centrality, the dissent thus offers us the prospect of this Court’s holding that some sincerely held religious beliefs and practices are not ‘central’ to certain religions, despite protestations to the contrary from the religious objectors who brought the lawsuit.”1 Basically, she reasoned that in the vein of precedent, it was not the role of the Court to decide if the sacred area was central to the Indians’ religion. In a stroke of judicial restraint, she wrote that though Indians’ religious practices should be protected, it was the role of the executive and legislature to do so.
The silver lining, so to speak, is that the aftermath of Lyng ended up benefiting the Indian tribes. Two years later, Congress passed a statute that protected the sacred area in dispute. In addition, the long struggles on the Indian plaintiffs lead them to increase awareness and education about their land and religious practices. However, there should still be a goal to overturn Lyng so the judiciary will start enforcing the Free Exercise Clause correctly.