On March 11, 2006, American Jews were preparing for Purim, which was just two days away. They planned parties, gift baskets, and megillah readings secure in the knowledge that in the land of the free, they could practice their faith without fear of government interference. Meanwhile, in McAllen, Texas, another religious community seeking to peacefully practice its faith was in for a rude surprise.
That day, members of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas gathered at a pow-pow, a religious ceremony involving drums, dances, and eagle feathers. The tribe welcomed outsiders to observe the ritual, so a stranger politely observing and asking questions did not raise any suspicions. This man, however, was an undercover agent for the federal government’s Fish and Wildlife Service. His mission? To investigate the tribe’s possession of contraband eagle feathers.
Once he discovered the origin of the feathers, the agent confiscated them and threatened the pastor conducting the ceremony with fines and jail time should he continue to use eagle feathers in accordance with his faith. This demand was untenable to the pastor, Robert Soto, because sacred feathers are an important part of his tribe’s dances and traditional rites.
This story might seem surprising to the uninitiated, but tension between Native Americans and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been ongoing for more than a decade and should concern anyone who values religious liberty.
Contrary to popular opinion, most religious liberty cases do not involve same-gender marriage, abortion, or anti-discrimination laws. They involve religious believers like Pastor Robert Soto who simply want the government to leave them alone so they can observe their faith in peace.
Most of the feathers the agent confiscated came from eagles and other birds covered by the Migratory Birds Treaty Act. This law prohibits possessing feathers that come from a long list of birds. Because many Native Americans use eagle feathers in religious and cultural ceremonies, the Department of the Interior created an exception that allows Native Americans to possess them.
But there’s a catch. The exception is limited to members of federally-registered tribes, and not all Native Americans belong to these tribes. The Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, for example, is recognized by historians, anthropologists, and the state of Texas, but not by Washington, D.C. – at least not yet. Consequently, its members cannot legally own eagle feathers.
The federal government does not doubt the religiosity of these tribes’ members. Nevertheless, it refuses to allow them to practice their faith. This discriminatory double standard is unacceptable as religious liberty must be protected for everyone, not just those favored by the government.
After a lengthy court battle Pastor Soto eventually recovered his feathers. He is now petitioning the Department of the Interior (which administers the Fish and Wildlife Service) to expand its exemption so that it covers all sincere adherents who need eagle feathers to practice their faith. The Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty filed an official comment with the agency voicing its support for the petition.
As members of a minority faith, Jews have a particular interest in ensuring that religious liberty protections cover every American. Jews comprises communities whose observances are founded in many different traditions and are rooted in the vast spread of the Jewish diaspora and centuries of religious debate. Religious liberty must protect all of these beliefs and all of these practices.
The federal government has no role to play in mediating theological disagreements between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews, or Jews and Christians. No matter how much we may disagree with one another internally, the best way to protect our own religious freedom is to protect everyone’s religious freedom.
So the next time someone tries to convince you that religious liberty is a Christian issue, tell him the story of Pastor Soto of the Lipan Apache Tribe in Texas. Tell him about Soto’s quest to protect religious liberty for all. And explain to him that this sort of case is vital for religious minorities like Jews.