The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Native American Religious Freedom

Native Americans have long fought to protect their religious freedom from repeated acts of governmental suppression - including the denial of access to religious sites, prohibitions on the use or possession of sacred objects, and restrictions on their ability to worship through ceremonial and traditional means.


In Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith (1991), the Supreme Court denied constitutional protection for a centuries-old Native religion that involves the sacramental use of peyote, a cactus plant that has psychedelic properties. The ruling in this case, which involved two Oregon men who were denied unemployment benefits after taking peyote as part of a worship ceremony of the Native American Church, was widely attacked by representatives of virtually all religious bodies in the United States as a major blow to religious freedom.

In 1993 Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would have overturned Smith and restored the "compelling interest" standards that limit government's ability to enforce legislation that infringes upon religious freedom. However, the Supreme Court soon struck down the law as an unconstitutional exercise of Congressional powers in City of Boerne v. Flores.

In 1994, a law signed by President Clinton exempted the religious use of peyote from federal and state controlled substance laws and prohibited discrimination against those who engage in the use of peyote for religious purposes. Although this protected Native Americans' use of peyote, the fight to protect other areas of religious freedom continues.

Sacred Sites

In Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protection Association (1988), the Supreme Court allowed the construction of a Forest Service road through an ancient site held sacred by several tribes. In a setback for Native Americans' religious freedoms, the Court ruled that such intrusion did not violate the Indians' First Amendment rights.

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