Pastor Robert Soto
MCALLEN, TEXAS – Moments after a hearing yesterday, a federal district judge in McAllen, Texas rejected the government’s attempt to dismiss a lawsuit challenging its controversial eagle feathers rule. The lawsuit was brought by Pastor Robert Soto, an American Indian religious leader, and members of his congregation, who are seeking the right to use eagle feathers in their traditional American Indian worship.
“The government has no business sending undercover agents to raid peaceful Native American religious ceremonies,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “It’s time for an overbearing bureaucracy to face the music.”
The court decision comes two months after the federal government returned Mr. Soto’s feathers in an attempt to get rid of his lawsuit. Federal law makes it a crime to possess eagle feathers. Nine years ago, an undercover agent raided Mr. Soto’s religious gathering, confiscated his feathers, and threatened him with criminal fines and prosecution. The government called this “Operation Powwow.”
Federal law allows possession of eagle feathers by museums, scientists, zoos, farmers, and a wide variety of “other interests.” It also allows possession of eagle feathers by members of “federally recognized” Indian tribes. But Mr. Soto is a member of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, which is recognized by historians, sociologists, and the State of Texas–but not by the federal government. Thus, while millions of other Americans are allowed to possess eagle feathers, Mr. Soto and his congregation are not.
Mr. Soto, and other members of his congregation, challenged this arbitrary treatment under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)–the same law that featured in last year’s Supreme Court decision involving Hobby Lobby. In August 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in his favor.