McAllen Grace Brethren Church v. Jewell
Pastor Robert Soto is an award-winning feather dancer and Lipan Apache religious leader who was threatened with criminal fines and imprisonment for using eagle feathers in his religious worship. After an undercover federal agent raided his traditional religious ceremony and seized his sacred eagle feathers, Pastor Soto fought in court for over a decade to defend his rights to practice his Native American faith under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In 2016, the federal government entered a historic settlement agreement with Pastor Soto and over 400 members of his congregation, recognizing their right to freely use eagle feathers in observance of their Native American faith.
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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
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. Relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Pastor Soto in 2014, stating 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.
In April 2019, in response to Pastor Soto’s legal victory, the Department of the Interior published a petition for rulemaking from Becket to end the criminalization of eagle feather possession and expand existing protections for federally-recognized Native American tribes to cover members of state-recognized tribes as well. The public was able to comment on the petition through July 16, 2019. Becket analyzed the submitted public comments and found that there was significant support for the rule change from the general public and tribes.
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.
Importance to Religious Liberty:
- Individual Freedom: Religious liberty encompasses more than just freedom of thought or worship—it involves the right to practice one’s faith visibly and publicly. The government must respect the right of all people to practice their faith, and it must be especially careful to protect religious minorities who are at risk of discrimination by the government.
- RFRA: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act ensures that the government cannot burden the religious exercise of individuals or groups to violate their deeply held beliefs without compelling interest or when there are reasonable alternatives to doing so.