The relationship between government and religion has been a
complicated issue ever since the architects of the new American
republic made it the lead item in the First Amendment to the US
Constitution and Thomas Jefferson argued for "a wall of separation
between church and state."
It remains a difficult legal and political issue, as witness the
US Supreme Court's recent split decisions on public displays of the
Ten Commandments. It may be even more complex involving claims by
native Americans, whose spiritual and religious practices are so
connected to what they see as holy ground.
A series of court cases and federal agency policy decisions have
attempted to thread subtle differences between the constitutional
protection of the "free exercise" of religion and the equally
important prohibition against the "establishment" of religion.
As with the Supreme Court's two-way decisions on the Ten
Commandments, federal courts seem to have moved in conflicting
Holy monuments vs. sacred ground
In one case, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled
against an 8-foot cross that had stood since 1934 on a hill in the
Mojave National Preserve in California commemorating US soldiers
lost in World War I. Yet another panel of judges from that same
appellate court ruled that the owner of property in Arizona could
not extract sand and gravel for commercial concrete from his land
because Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni tribes considered it to be sacred.
Critics say that declarations of hallowed ground by the federal
government - just as in cases involving Christmas creches and other
religious displays - go against the First Amendment. "That's a clear
establishment clause violation," says William Perry Pendley,
president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation. He reads the
court decisions as "no to Christianity, yes to pantheism."
Ruling in the Arizona case, brought by gravel pit owner Dale
McKinnon, three Ninth Circuit judges saw things differently.
"Because of the unique status of Native American societies in North
American history, protecting Native American shrines and other
culturally important sites has historical value for the nation as a
whole, much like Greece's preservation of the Parthenon," wrote
Judge Betty Fletcher.
"The Establishment Clause does not require governments to ignore
the historical value of religious sites," Judge Fletcher wrote.
"Native American sacred sites of historical value are entitled to
the same protection as the many Judeo-Christian religious sites ...
including the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.; the Touro
Synagogue, America's oldest standing synagogue, dedicated in 1763;
and numerous churches that played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights
Movement, including the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in
Among the more well-known sites at least partially protected
because of their religious and cultural importance to native
Americans are Medicine Wheel and Devil's Tower in Wyoming, Rainbow
Bridge in Utah, and Cave Rock on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. …