Supreme Court of the United States
NORTHWEST INDIAN CEMETERY PROTECTIVE ASSOCIATION
Decided April 19, 1988
Justice O’Connor, For the Court
Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, 485 U.S. 439 (1988), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court ruled on the applicability of the Free Exercise Clause to the practice of religion on Native American sacred lands, specifically in the Chimney Rock area of the Six Rivers National Forest in California. This area, also known as the High Country, was used by the Yurok, Karuk, and Tolowa tribes as a religious site. The ruling is considered a key example of judicial restraint by the Supreme Court.
|Topic: First Amendment*||Court vote: 5–3|
Click any Justice for detailJoining O'Connor opinion: Chief Justice REHNQUIST Justice SCALIA Justice STEVENS Justice WHITE
|Holding: “It is clearly established federal law that sentence imposed under California's three strikes law is not cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”|
|Citation: 485 U.S. 439||Docket: 86–1013||Audio: Listen to this case's oral arguments at Oyez|
* As categorized by the Washington University Law Supreme Court Database
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JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case requires us to consider whether the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause prohibits the Government from permitting timber harvesting in, or constructing a road through, a portion of a National Forest that has traditionally been used for religious purposes by members of three American Indian tribes in northwestern California. We conclude that it does not.
As part of a project to create a paved 75-mile road linking two California towns, Gasquet and Orleans, the United States Forest Service has upgraded 49 miles of previously unpaved roads on federal land. In order to complete this project (the G-O road), the Forest Service must build a 6-mile paved segment through the Chimney Rock section of the Six Rivers National Forest. That section of the forest is situated between two other portions of the road that are already complete.
In 1977, the Forest Service issued a draft environmental impact statement that discussed proposals for upgrading an existing unpaved road that runs through the Chimney Rock area. In response to comments on the draft statement, the Forest Service commissioned a study of American Indian cultural and religious sites in the area. The Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation adjoins the Six Rivers National Forest, and the Chimney Rock area has historically been used for religious purposes by Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa Indians. The commissioned study, which was completed in 1979, found that the entire area "is significant as an integral and indispensable part of Indian religious conceptualization and practice." App. 181. Specific sites are used for certain rituals, and
successful use of the [area] is dependent upon and facilitated by certain qualities of the physical environment, the most important of which are privacy, silence, and an undisturbed natural setting.
Ibid. (footnote omitted). The study concluded that constructing a road along any of the available routes
would cause serious and irreparable damage to the sacred areas which are an integral and necessary part of the belief systems and lifeway of Northwest California Indian peoples.
Id. at 182. Accordingly, the report recommended that the G-O road not be completed.
In 1982, the Forest Service decided not to adopt this recommendation, and it prepared a final environmental impact statement for construction of the road. The Regional Forester selected a route that avoided archeological sites and was removed as far as possible from the sites used by contemporary Indians for specific spiritual activities. Alternative routes that would have avoided the Chimney Rock area altogether were rejected because they would have required the acquisition of private land, had serious soil stability problems, and would in any event have traversed areas having ritualistic value to American Indians. See id. at 217-218. At about the same time, the Forest Service adopted a management plan allowing for the harvesting of significant amounts of timber in this area of the forest. The management plan provided for one-half mile protective zones around all the religious sites identified in the report that had been commissioned in connection with the G-O road.
After exhausting their administrative remedies, respondents -an Indian organization, individual Indians, nature organizations and individual members of those organizations, and the State of California -challenged both the roadbuilding and timber harvesting decisions in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. Respondents claimed that the Forest Service's decisions violated the Free Exercise Clause, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA), 86 Stat. 896, as amended, 33 U.S.C. § 1251 et seq., the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), 83 Stat. 852, 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq., several other federal statutes, and governmental trust responsibilities to Indians living on the Hoopa Valley Reservation.
After a trial, the District Court issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the Government from constructing the Chimney Rock section of the G-O road or putting the timber harvesting management plan into effect. See Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Assn. v. Peterson, 565 F.Supp. 586 (1983). The court found that both actions would violate the Free Exercise Clause because they "would seriously damage the salient visual, aural, and environmental qualities of the high country." Id. at 594-595. The court also found that both proposed actions would violate the FWPCA, and that the environmental impact statements for construction of the road were deficient under the NEPA. Finally, the court concluded that both projects would breach the Government's trust responsibilities to protect water and fishing rights reserved to the Hoopa Valley Indians.
While an appeal was pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Congress enacted the California Wilderness Act of 1984, Pub.L. 98-425, 98 Stat. 1619. Under that statute, much of the property covered by the Forest Service's management plan is now designated a wilderness area, which means that commercial activities such as timber harvesting are forbidden. The statute exempts a narrow strip of land, coinciding with the Forest Service's proposed route for the remaining segment of the G-O road, from the wilderness designation. The legislative history indicates that this exemption was adopted "to enable the completion of the Gasquet-Orleans Road project if the responsible authorities so decide." S.Rep. No. 98-582, p. 29 (1984). The existing unpaved section of road, however, lies within the wilderness area, and is therefore now closed to general traffic.
A panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed in part. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Assn. v. Peterson, 795 F.2d 688 (1986). The panel unanimously rejected the District Court's conclusion that the Government's proposed actions would breach its trust responsibilities to Indians on the Hoopa Valley Reservation. The panel also vacated the injunction to the extent that it had been rendered moot by the California Wilderness Act, which now prevents timber harvesting in certain areas covered by the District Court's order. The District Court's decision, to the extent that it rested on statutory grounds, was otherwise unanimously affirmed
By a divided decision, the District Court's constitutional ruling was also affirmed. Relying primarily on the Forest Service's own commissioned study, the majority found that construction of the Chimney Rock section of the G-O road would have significant, though largely indirect, adverse effects on Indian religious practices. The majority concluded that the Government had failed to demonstrate a compelling interest in the completion of the road, and that it could have abandoned the road without thereby creating "a religious preserve for a single group in violation of the establishment clause." Id. at 694. The majority apparently applied the same analysis to logging operations that might be carried out in portions of the Chimney Rock area not covered by the California Wilderness Act. See id. at 692-693 ("Because most of the high country has now been designated by Congress as a wilderness area, the issue of logging becomes less significant, although it does not disappear").
The dissenting judge argued that certain of the adverse effects on the Indian respondents' religious practices could be eliminated by less drastic measures than a ban on building the road, and that other actual or suggested adverse effects did not pose a serious threat to the Indians' religious practices. He also concluded that the injunction against timber harvesting needed to be reconsidered in light of the California Wilderness Act:
It is not clear whether the district court would have issued an injunction based upon the development of the remaining small parcels. Accordingly, I would remand to allow the district court to reevaluate its injunction in light of the Act.
Id. at 704.
We begin by noting that the courts below did not articulate the bases of their decisions with perfect clarity. A fundamental and longstanding principle of judicial restraint requires that courts avoid reaching constitutional questions in advance of the necessity of deciding them. See Three Affiliated Tribes of Ft. Berthold Reservation v. Wold Engineering, P. C., 467 U. S. 138, 467 U. S. 157 -158 (1984); see also, e.g., Jean v. Nelson, 472 U. S. 846, 472 U. S. 854 (1985); Gulf Oil Co. v. Bernard, 452 U. S. 89, 452 U. S. 99 (1981); Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U. S. 288, 297 U. S. 346 -348 (1936) (Brandeis, J., concurring). This principle required the courts below to determine, before addressing the constitutional issue, whether a decision on that question could have entitled respondents to relief beyond that to which they were entitled on their statutory claims. If no additional relief would have been warranted, a constitutional decision would have been unnecessary, and therefore inappropriate.
Neither the District Court nor the Court of Appeals explained or expressly articulated the necessity for their constitutional holdings. Were we persuaded that those holdings were unnecessary, we could simply vacate the relevant portions of the judgment below without discussing the merits of the constitutional issue. The structure and wording of the District Court's injunctive order, however, suggest that the statutory holdings would not have supported all the relief granted. The order is divided into four sections. Two of those sections deal with a 31,100-acre tract referred to as the Blue Creek Roadless Area. The injunction prohibits the Forest Service from engaging in timber harvesting or roadbuilding anywhere on the tract "unless and until" compliance with the NEPA and the FWPCA have been demonstrated. 565 F.Supp. at 606-607. The sections of the injunction dealing with the smaller Chimney Rock area ( i.e., the area affected by the First Amendment challenge) are worded differently. The Forest Service is permanently enjoined, without any qualifying language, from constructing the proposed portion of the G-O road "and/or any alternative route " through that area; similarly, the injunction forbids timber harvesting or the construction of logging roads in the Chimney Rock area pursuant to the Forest Service's proposed management plan "or any other land management plan. " Id. at 606 (emphasis added). These differences in wording suggest, without absolutely implying, that an injunction covering the Chimney Rock area would in some way have been conditional, or narrower in scope, if the District Court had not decided the First Amendment issue as it did. Similarly, the silence of the Court of Appeals as to the necessity of reaching the First Amendment issue may have reflected its understanding that the District Court's injunction necessarily rested in part on constitutional grounds.
Because it appears reasonably likely that the First Amendment issue was necessary to the decisions below, we believe that it would be inadvisable to vacate and remand without addressing that issue on the merits. This conclusion is strengthened by considerations of judicial economy. The Government, which petitioned for certiorari on the constitutional issue alone, has informed us that it believes it can cure the statutory defects identified below, intends to do so, and will not challenge the adverse statutory rulings. Tr. of Oral Arg. 9-10. In this circumstance, it is difficult to see what principle would be vindicated by sending this case on what would almost certainly be a brief round trip to the courts below.
The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment provides that "Congress shall make no law... prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]." It is undisputed that the Indian respondents' beliefs are sincere and that the Government's proposed actions will have severe adverse effects on the practice of their religion. Those respondents contend that the burden on their religious practices is heavy enough to violate the Free Exercise Clause unless the Government can demonstrate a compelling need to complete the G-O road or to engage in timber harvesting in the Chimney Rock area. We disagree.
In Bowen v. Roy, 476 U. S. 693 (1986), we considered a challenge to a federal statute that required the States to use Social Security numbers in administering certain welfare programs. Two applicants for benefits under these programs contended that their religious beliefs prevented them from acceding to the use of a Social Security number for their 2-year-old daughter because the use of a numerical identifier would " rob the spirit' of [their] daughter and prevent her from attaining greater spiritual power." Id. at 476 U. S. 696. Similarly, in this case, it is said that disruption of the natural environment caused by the G-O road will diminish the sacredness of the area in question and create distractions that will interfere with
training and ongoing religious experience of individuals using [sites within] the area for personal medicine and growth... and as integrated parts of a system of religious belief and practice which correlates ascending degrees of personal power with a geographic hierarchy of power.
App. 181. Cf. id. at 178 ("Scarred hills and mountains, and disturbed rocks destroy the purity of the sacred areas, and [Indian] consultants repeatedly stressed the need of a training doctor to be undistracted by such disturbance"). The Court rejected this kind of challenge in Roy:
The Free Exercise Clause simply cannot be understood to require the Government to conduct its own internal affairs in ways that comport with the religious beliefs of particular citizens. Just as the Government may not insist that [the Roys] engage in any set form of religious observance, so [they] may not demand that the Government join in their chosen religious practices by refraining from using a number to identify their daughter....... The Free Exercise Clause affords an individual protection from certain forms of governmental compulsion; it does not afford an individual a right to dictate the conduct of the Government's internal procedures.
476 U.S. at 476 U. S. 699 -700.
The building of a road or the harvesting of timber on publicly owned land cannot meaningfully be distinguished from the use of a Social Security number in Roy. In both cases, the challenged Government action would interfere significantly with private persons' ability to pursue spiritual fulfillment according to their own religious beliefs. In neither case, however, would the affected individuals be coerced by the Government's action into violating their religious beliefs; nor would either governmental action penalize religious activity by denying any person an equal share of the rights, benefits, and privileges enjoyed by other citizens.
We are asked to distinguish this case from Roy on the ground that the infringement on religious liberty here is "significantly greater," or on the ground that the Government practice in Roy was "purely mechanical," whereas this case involves "a case-by-case substantive determination as to how a particular unit of land will be managed." Brief for Indian Respondents 33-34. Similarly, we are told that this case can be distinguished from Roy because "the government action is not at some physically removed location where it places no restriction on what a practitioner may do." Brief for Respondent State of California 18. The State suggests that the Social Security number in Roy
could be characterized as interfering with Roy's religious tenets from a subjective point of view, where the government's conduct of 'its own internal affairs' was known to him only second-hand, and did not interfere with his ability to practice his religion.
Id. at 19 (footnote omitted; internal citation omitted). In this case, however, it is said that the proposed road will "physically destro[y] the environmental conditions and the privacy without which the [religious] practices cannot be conducted." Ibid.
These efforts to distinguish Roy are unavailing. This Court cannot determine the truth of the underlying beliefs that led to the religious objections here or in Roy, see Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Comm'n of Fla., 480 U. S. 136, 480 U. S. 144, n. 9 (1987), and accordingly cannot weigh the adverse effects on the appellees in Roy and compare them with the adverse effects on the Indian respondents. Without the ability to make such comparisons, we cannot say that the one form of incidental interference with an individual's spiritual activities should be subjected to a different constitutional analysis than the other.
Respondents insist, nonetheless, that the courts below properly relied on a factual inquiry into the degree to which the Indians' spiritual practices would become ineffectual if the G-O road were built. They rely on several cases in which this Court has sustained free exercise challenges to government programs that interfered with individuals' ability to practice their religion. See Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U. S. 205 (1972) (compulsory school-attendance law); Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U. S. 398 (1963) (denial of unemployment benefits to applicant who refused to accept work requiring her to violate the Sabbath); Thomas v. Review Board, Indiana Employment Security Div., 450 U. S. 707 (1981) (denial of unemployment benefits to applicant whose religion forbade him to fabricate weapons); Hobbie, supra, (denial of unemployment benefits to religious convert who resigned position that required her to work on the Sabbath).
Even apart from the inconsistency between Roy and respondents' reading of these cases, their interpretation will not withstand analysis. It is true that this Court has repeatedly held that indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions, are subject to scrutiny under the First Amendment. Thus, for example, ineligibility for unemployment benefits, based solely on a refusal to violate the Sabbath, has been analogized to a fine imposed on Sabbath worship. Sherbert, supra, at 374 U. S. 404. This does not and cannot imply that incidental effects of government programs, which may make it more difficult to practice certain religions but which have no tendency to coerce individuals into acting contrary to their religious beliefs, require government to bring forward a compelling justification for its otherwise lawful actions. T he crucial word in the constitutional text is "prohibit":
For the Free Exercise Clause is written in terms of what the government cannot do to the individual, not in terms of what the individual can exact from the government.
Sherbert, supra, at 374 U. S. 412 (Douglas, J., concurring).
Whatever may be the exact line between unconstitutional prohibitions on the free exercise of religion and the legitimate conduct by government of its own affairs, the location of the line cannot depend on measuring the effects of a governmental action on a religious objector's spiritual development. The Government does not dispute, and we have no reason to doubt, that the logging and roadbuilding projects at issue in this case could have devastating effects on traditional Indian religious practices. Those practices are intimately and inextricably bound up with the unique features of the Chimney Rock area, which is known to the Indians as the "high country." Individual practitioners use this area for personal spiritual development; some of their activities are believed to be critically important in advancing the welfare of the Tribe, and indeed, of mankind itself. The Indians use this area, as they have used it for a very long time, to conduct a wide variety of specific rituals that aim to accomplish their religious goals. According to their beliefs, the rituals would not be efficacious if conducted at other sites than the ones traditionally used, and too much disturbance of the area's natural state would clearly render any meaningful continuation of traditional practices impossible. To be sure, the Indians themselves were far from unanimous in opposing the G-O road, see App. 180, and it seems less than certain that construction of the road will be so disruptive that it will doom their religion. Nevertheless, we can assume that the threat to the efficacy of at least some religious practices is extremely grave.
Even if we assume that we should accept the Ninth Circuit's prediction, according to which the G-O road will "virtually destroy the... Indians' ability to practice their religion," 795 F.2d at 693 (opinion below), the Constitution simply does not provide a principle that could justify upholding respondents' legal claims. However much we might wish that it were otherwise, government simply could not operate if it were required to satisfy every citizen's religious needs and desires. A broad range of government activities -from social welfare programs to foreign aid to conservation projects -will always be considered essential to the spiritual wellbeing of some citizens, often on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs. Others will find the very same activities deeply offensive, and perhaps incompatible with their own search for spiritual fulfillment and with the tenets of their religion. The First Amendment must apply to all citizens alike, and it can give to none of them a veto over public programs that do not prohibit the free exercise of religion. The Constitution does not, and courts cannot, offer to reconcile the various competing demands on government, many of them rooted in sincere religious belief, that inevitably arise in so diverse a society as ours. That task, to the extent that it is feasible, is for the legislatures and other institutions. Cf. The Federalist No. 10 (suggesting that the effects of religious factionalism are best restrained through competition among a multiplicity of religious sects).
One need not look far beyond the present case to see why the analysis in Roy, but not respondents' proposed extension of Sherbert and its progeny, offers a sound reading of the Constitution. Respondents attempt to stress the limits of the religious servitude that they are now seeking to impose on the Chimney Rock area of the Six Rivers National Forest. While defending an injunction against logging operations and the construction of a road, they apparently do not at present object to the area's being used by recreational visitors, other Indians, or forest rangers. Nothing in the principle for which they contend, however, would distinguish this case from another lawsuit in which they (or similarly situated religious objectors) might seek to exclude all human activity but their own from sacred areas of the public lands. The Indian respondents insist that " [p]rivacy during the power quests is required for the practitioners to maintain the purity needed for a successful journey." Brief for Indian Respondents 8 (emphasis added; citation to record omitted). Similarly:
The practices conducted in the high country entail intense meditation and require the practitioner to achieve a profound awareness of the natural environment. Prayer seats are oriented so there is an unobstructed view, and the practitioner must be surrounded by undisturbed naturalness.
Id. at 8, n. 4 (emphasis added; citations to record omitted). No disrespect for these practices is implied when one notes that such beliefs could easily require de facto beneficial ownership of some rather spacious tracts of public property. Even without anticipating future cases, the diminution of the Government's property rights, and the concomitant subsidy of the Indian religion, would in this case be far from trivial: the District Court's order permanently forbade commercial timber harvesting, or the construction of a two-lane road, anywhere within an area covering a full 27 sections ( i.e. more than 17,000 acres) of public land.
The Constitution does not permit government to discriminate against religions that treat particular physical sites as sacred, and a law prohibiting the Indian respondents from visiting the Chimney Rock area would raise a different set of constitutional questions. Whatever rights the Indians may have to the use of the area, however, those rights do not divest the Government of its right to use what is, after all, its land. Cf. Bowen v. Roy, 476 U.S. at 476 U. S. 724 -727 (O'CONNOR, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (distinguishing between the Government's use of information in its possession and the Government's requiring an individual to provide such information).
Nothing in our opinion should be read to encourage governmental insensitivity to the religious needs of any citizen. The Government's rights to the use of its own land, for example, need not and should not discourage it from accommodating religious practices like those engaged in by the Indian respondents. Cf. Sherbert, 374 U.S. at 374 U. S. 422 -423 (Harlan, J., dissenting). It is worth emphasizing, therefore, that the Government has taken numerous steps in this very case to minimize the impact that construction of the G-O road will have on the Indians' religious activities. First, the Forest Service commissioned a comprehensive study of the effects that the project would have on the cultural and religious value of the Chimney Rock area. The resulting 423-page report was so sympathetic to the Indians' interests that it has constituted the principal piece of evidence relied on by respondents throughout this litigation.
Although the Forest Service did not in the end adopt the report's recommendation that the project be abandoned, many other ameliorative measures were planned. No sites where specific rituals take place were to be disturbed. In fact, a major factor in choosing among alternative routes for the road was the relation of the various routes to religious sites: the route selected by the Regional Forester is, he noted,
the farthest removed from contemporary spiritual sites; thus, the adverse audible intrusions associated with the road would be less than all other alternatives.
App. 102. Nor were the Forest Service's concerns limited to "audible intrusions." As the dissenting judge below observed, 10 specific steps were planned to reduce the visual impact of the road on the surrounding country. See 795 F.2d at 703 (Beezer, J., dissenting in part).
Except for abandoning its project entirely, and thereby leaving the two existing segments of road to dead-end in the middle of a National Forest, it is difficult to see how the Government could have been more solicitous. Such solicitude accords with
the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian... including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.
American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), Pub.L. 95-341, 92 Stat. 469, 42 U.S.C. § 1996.
Respondents, however, suggest that AIRFA goes further, and in effect enacts their interpretation of the First Amendment into statutory law. Although this contention was rejected by the District Court, they seek to defend the judgment below by arguing that AIRFA authorizes the injunction against completion of the G-O road. This argument is without merit. After reciting several legislative findings, AIRFA "resolves" upon the policy quoted above. A second section of the statute, 92 Stat. 470, required an evaluation of federal policies and procedures, in consultation with native religious leaders, of changes necessary to protect and preserve the rights and practices in question. The required report dealing with this evaluation was completed and released in 1979. Reply Brief for Petitioners 2, n. 3. Nowhere in the law is there so much as a hint of any intent to create a cause of action or any judicially enforceable individual rights.
What is obvious from the face of the statute is confirmed by numerous indications in the legislative history. The sponsor of the bill that became AIRFA, Representative Udall, called it "a sense of Congress joint resolution," aimed at ensuring that
the basic right of the Indian people to exercise their traditional religious practices is not infringed without a clear decision on the part of the Congress or the administrators that such religious practices must yield to some higher consideration.
124 Cong.Rec. 21444 (1978). Representative Udall emphasized that the bill would not "confer special religious rights on Indians," would "not change any existing State or Federal law," and in fact "has no teeth in it." Id. at 21444-21445.
The dissent proposes an approach to the First Amendment that is fundamentally inconsistent with the principles on which our decision rests. Notwithstanding the sympathy that we all must feel for the plight of the Indian respondents, it is plain that the approach taken by the dissent cannot withstand analysis. On the contrary, the path towards which it points us is incompatible with the text of the Constitution, with the precedents of this Court, and with a responsible sense of our own institutional role.
The dissent begins by asserting that the
constitutional guarantee we interpret today... is directed against any form of government action that frustrates or inhibits religious practice.
Post at 485 U. S. 459 (emphasis added). The Constitution, however, says no such thing. Rather, it states: "Congress shall make no law... prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]." U.S.Const., Amdt. 1 (emphasis added).
As we explained above, Bowen v. Roy rejected a First Amendment challenge to Government activities that the religious objectors sincerely believed would " rob the spirit' of [their] daughter and prevent her from attaining greater spiritual power." See supra at 485 U. S. 448 (quoting Roy, 476 U.S. at 476 U. S. 696 ). The dissent now offers to distinguish that case by saying that the Government was acting there "in a purely internal manner," whereas land-use decisions "are likely to have substantial external effects." Post at 485 U. S. 470. Whatever the source or meaning of the dissent's distinction, it has no basis in Roy. Robbing the spirit of a child, and preventing her from attaining greater spiritual power, is both a "substantial external effect" and one that is remarkably similar to the injury claimed by respondents in the case before us today. The dissent's reading of Roy would effectively overrule that decision, without providing any compelling justification for doing so.
The dissent also misreads Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U. S. 205 (1972). The statute at issue in that case prohibited the Amish parents, on pain of criminal prosecution, from providing their children with the kind of education required by the Amish religion. Id. at 406 U. S. 207 -209, 406 U. S. 223. The statute directly compelled the Amish to send their children to public high schools "contrary to the Amish religion and way of life." Id. at 406 U. S. 209. The Court acknowledged that the statute might be constitutional, despite its coercive nature, if the State could show with sufficient
particularity how its admittedly strong interest in compulsory education would be adversely affected by granting an exemption to the Amish.
Id. at 406 U. S. 236 (citation omitted). The dissent's out-of-context quotations notwithstanding, there is nothing whatsoever in the Yoder opinion to support the proposition that the "impact" on the Amish religion would have been constitutionally problematic if the statute at issue had not been coercive in nature. Cf. post at 485 U. S. 466.
Perceiving a "stress point in the longstanding conflict between two disparate cultures," the dissent attacks us for declining to
balanc[e] these competing and potentially irreconcilable interests, choosing instead to turn this difficult task over to the Federal Legislature.
Post at 485 U. S. 473. Seeing the Court as the arbiter, the dissent proposes a legal test under which it would decide which public lands are "central" or "indispensable" to which religions, and by implication which are "dispensable" or "peripheral," and would then decide which government programs are "compelling" enough to justify "infringement of those practices." Post at 485 U. S. 475. We would accordingly be required to weigh the value of every religious belief and practice that is said to be threatened by any government program. Unless a "showing of centrality,'" post at 485 U. S. 474, is nothing but an assertion of centrality, see post at 485 U. S. 475, 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. In other words, the dissent's approach would require us to rule that some religious adherents misunderstand their own religious beliefs. We think such an approach cannot be squared with the Constitution or with our precedents, and that it would cast the Judiciary in a role that we were never intended to play.
The decision of the court below, according to which the First Amendment precludes the Government from completing the G-O road or from permitting timber harvesting in the Chimney Rock area, is reversed. In order that the District Court's injunction may be reconsidered in light of this holding, and in the light of any other relevant events that may have intervened since the injunction issued, the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
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