Religious Freedom for Native Americans Under Federal Law
Just as there were hundreds of Native American languages when Europeans arrived in the present-day United States, numerous religions played a central role in tribal cultures. These belief systems identified certain locations as sacred places and typically involved supernatural deities, including a creator. However, constitutional protections for religious freedom initially did not extend to Native American religions. This was in part because European-Americans failed to accept tribal beliefs as organized "religions," especially since a single religion did not unite the tribes. As the US expanded westward, the federal government sought to aggressively assimilate Native Americans into European-American society.
Native American Boarding Schools
As part of its assimilation policies, the federal government operated boarding schools for Native American children. These schools were intended to convert children to Christianity, among other purposes, and break their ties to the traditional beliefs held by their parents.
In the late 19th century, US Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price created the Code of Indian Offenses. Banned traditional practices under the Code included various tribal dances, polygamy, and gift rituals. Native American spiritual leaders were forbidden from using any tools or skills to bolster Native American traditions, and they could not prevent Native American children from attending federally operated schools. The Code of Indian Offenses lasted for half a century. In 1934, Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier reversed this policy by prohibiting further interference with Native American religions. His directive required respect for the cultural freedom of the tribes.
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act
Acknowledging the harm caused to Native American religions by federal policies, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978. AIRFA ended prohibitions on various elements of spiritual ceremonies and belief systems. Native Americans, Native Alaskans, and Native Hawaiians formally received the right to freedom of religious belief, exercise, and expression. Congress recognized that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment applied to Native American religions. Government agencies were directed to stop interfering with these religions. Moreover, AIRFA requires the government to allow Native Americans to access and use their religious sites, as long as this is feasible and consistent with the essential functions of the government agency. Native Americans also may hold traditional religious ceremonies and use traditional sacred objects.
A Supreme Court decision later threatened to limit AIRFA by allowing a federal agency to build a logging road through sacred lands in a national forest. Constructing the road adversely affected the religions of three Native American tribes, which placed great weight on meditation and undisturbed nature. The Court ruled that the road did not violate AIRFA, since the Free Exercise Clause does not require the government to accommodate all individual religious preferences on federal land. However, President Bill Clinton later issued an executive order directing agencies to allow Native Americans to access and use religious sites on federal land. The executive order also prohibited agencies from taking actions that would harm these sites.
Peyote in the Native American Church
Peyote is a spineless cactus containing mescaline and other psychoactive alkaloids. The Native American Church, which combines traditional and Christian practices, uses peyote for sacramental purposes. The Supreme Court ruled that a state could prevent this use of peyote without violating the Free Exercise Clause if the prohibition involved a generally applicable rule with no anti-religious intent. The federal government and over 20 states responded by passing laws that require the government to refrain from substantially burdening the exercise of religious beliefs, even when enacting rules of general applicability. Congress also amended AIRFA to permit this specific use of peyote.