Court: Eagle feathers only for American Indians

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Restricting use of eagle parts and feathers to members of federally recognized American Indian tribes for religious purposes does not violate the religious freedoms of non-Indians seeking the same right, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The Denver-based U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found that such a prohibition, under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, does not violate the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Tuesday's ruling comes after several cases in which non-Indians, and one man from a tribe that is no longer recognized by the federal government, sought the right to use feathers in their religious practices.

Eagle feathers are believed to be sacred among many Native Americans.

Federal law requires that eagle carcasses be sent to the National Eagle Repository in Denver, Colo., and that any tribe member wishing to use eagle feathers or parts in ceremonies apply for a permit to do so. The court noted that the repository "receives significantly more requests than it has available eagle carcasses" so there is already a long waiting period to fulfill permits.

All the cases noted in Tuesday's ruling weighed freedom of religion against the government's ability to protect the eagles and help maintain the centuries-old religious practices of Native Americans.

Federally recognized tribe members agree the law should restrict access to eagle parts to those whose ancestors have been practicing such ceremonies for centuries.

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