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Appeals court expands 'religious freedom' rights post-hobby lobby ruling.

A federal appeals court has further expanded the rights of religious adherents to claim exemptions from secular laws that others must follow thanks to a recent ruling that said members of Native American tribes not recognized by the federal government may possess bald eagle feathers.

Michael Russell, who is not Native American, and Robert Soto, a member of an unrecognized tribe who is also pastor at a church in. McAllen, Texas, had their bald eagle feathers confiscated at a powwow ceremony in 2006. Federal law currently states that recognized tribes may have bald eagle feathers, provided they obtain a permit. But this did not apply to Russell and Soto, so they sued--claiming the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a 1993 law intended to protect religious minorities from government overreach, gave them the right to have the feathers. (RFRA is the same statute that was at the heart of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which expanded legal exemptions for corporations on religious grounds.)

The U.S. government argued that placing limitations on eagle feather possession permits serves the purpose of fighting black market trading of feathers without forcing federal agents to act as "religious police" who must verify the heritage of anyone who has the feathers.

In an August ruling, however, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the federal government had not shown that the Eagle Protection Act of 1940 was not the "least restrictive means" for protecting the endangered bird, which is also a national symbol. This action overturned a lower court's decision.

The federal government has not announced if it will appeal the ruling in the McAllen Grace Brethren Church v. Salazar case.

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Title Annotation:PEOPLE & EVENTS
Publication:Church & State
Date:Oct 1, 2014
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