The cases before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals weigh freedom of religion against the government's right to protect bald and golden eagles. One involves a descendent of the Chiricahua Apaches in New Mexico, a tribe no longer recognized by the government. The other two involve Utah residents who are not Indians.
"We don't deny there is a compelling state interest in protecting eagles," said Cindy Barton-Coombs, lawyer for Raymond Hardman of Neola, Utah. "We do not believe there is a compelling state interest in keeping Mr. Hardman or other practitioners of American Indian religion from keeping eagle feathers."
Hardman and Samuel Ray Wilgus want feathers seized by federal officials to be returned to them. A lower court rejected earlier arguments they were entitled to the feathers because of their religion.
In the case of the Apache descendant, Joseluis Saenz, prosecutors appealed a ruling that the seizure of his eagle feathers violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Lawyers for the three men want the federal laws protecting eagles interpreted more broadly, including their clients under the religious use exemption. In all three cases, the government is seeking to uphold the act so that only members of federally recognized tribes can use feathers.
Government attorney Kathryn Kovacs said the demand for eagle feathers exceeds the government's supply in a repository in the Denver area.
"The government has to provide exemptions for religion only if it doesn't undermine the statute's purpose," Kovacs said Tuesday.
Federal officials have suggested removing the bald eagle from the endangered species list because its numbers have increased, but Kovacs urged caution. She also said the demand for the feathers might increase if the courts allow non-Indians to have them.