McAllen Grace Brethren Church v. Jewell

Becket Role:


Decision Date:
June 13, 2016
Deciding Court:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Case Summary

What would you do if an undercover federal agent came into your church service, confiscated your communion wine, and threatened you with criminal prosecution? Sound crazy? Not if you are Native American.

Meet Pastor Robert Soto of the Lipan Apache tribe

Robert Soto is an award-winning feather dancer and Lipan Apache religious leader. In 2006, he attended a powwow – a Native American religious ceremony involving drumming, dancing, and ceremonial dress. But an undercover federal agent infiltrated the powwow and cut the celebration short when he noticed that Pastor Soto and others possessed eagle feathers.

Threatened for worshiping with eagle feathers

Click to view full size infographic

The agent interrogated Soto and other powwow participants, confiscated their feathers, and threatened them with criminal prosecution unless they signed papers abandoning their feathers. The agent claimed to be enforcing the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which prohibits possession of eagle feathers without a permit. Under the law, permits are available for museums, scientists, zoos, farmers, and “other interests” – such as power companies, which kill hundreds of eagles every year. They are also available for Native Americans – but only for federally recognized tribes.”

Pastor Soto is a member of the Lipan Apache Tribe, 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, Pastor Soto – a renowned feather dancer and ordained religious leader – was not.

Becket defends Pastor Soto’s religious freedom

With the help of Becket, Pastor Soto challenged this arbitrary law in federal court, arguing that it violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Pastor Soto, relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby and finding that the federal government failed to adequately justify this restriction on religious freedom.

Soon after, the federal government entered a historic settlement agreement with Pastor Soto and over 400 members of his congregation. The agreement recognizes their right to freely use eagle feathers in observance of their Native American faith and promises that the government will reconsider its policies for enforcing feather restrictions in the future.

Pastor Soto put it best: “This is a victory not just for me and my people, but for all people of faith. If the government can take away my freedom, it can take away yours. So we have to stand together.”

Read the Top Ten Facts about this case. More photos and video available here.

For over a decade, Becket has actively defended the religious freedom of Native Americans. We currently represent members of the Klickitat and Cascade Tribes of the Yakima Nation in a case that calls government bureaucrats to account for the desecration of sacred burial grounds. We have urged government officials to protect the right of Native Americans to wear long hair or a symbolic headband in accordance with their faith. We have also filed legal briefs defending the right of Native American tribes to practice centuries-old religious ceremonies at sacred sites like the Medicine Wheel and Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming.

Case Information

Becket Role:
Case Start Date:
March 16, 2007
Deciding Court:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
Original Court:
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas