Beliefnet News

Mallika Rao
Religion News Service

Washington – A Native American prisoner who was denied the eagle feathers he needed to practice his religious rites will be represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a suit against the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins.
Penitentiary officials confiscated the single feather held by North Arapaho tribesman Andrew John Yellowbear in June 2006, and told Yellowbear to apply to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for permission to reclaim it.
“They said that he needed a federal permit, so he applied and was granted a permit to obtain up to 10 feathers,” said Stephen Pevar, the ACLU lawyer representing Yellowbear.
But Yellowbear, who is serving a life sentence for murder, was not allowed to get his hands on the additional feathers, and the original confiscated feather remains with prison officials.
Representatives from the penitentiary declined to comment.
The possession of bald eagle feathers is barred by federal law, with an exception made for American Indian tribes that use them for religious practices.
“It’s the means of communicating with the creator,” said Alonzo Moss Sr., an Arapaho elder in Ethete, Wyo. “It’s hard to explain in English.
The only thing I can tell you is that it’s no different from the white man using his cross or his rosary.”
Under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, states can bar a prisoner’s religious exercise only in the event of a compelling government interest and by using the most benign approach possible.
In the past, at least one inmate at the Wyoming penitentiary has been allowed the use of a full eagle wing, according to an ACLU press release.
The only reasonable defense for the prison’s actions would be if the feathers posed some sort of danger to the institution, said Pevar.
“But that’s not the case here,” he said. “These eagle feathers are the most sacred item for these prisoners. There’s no way they’re a threat to anyone or anything.”
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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