JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case requires us to consider whether the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause prohibits the Government from permitting timber harvesting in, or constructing a road through, a portion of a National Forest that has traditionally
As part of a project to create a paved 75-mile road linking two California towns, Gasquet and Orleans, the United States Forest Service has upgraded 49 miles of previously unpaved roads on federal land. In order to complete this project (the G-O road), the Forest Service must build a 6-mile paved segment through the Chimney Rock section of the Six Rivers National Forest. That section of the forest is situated between two other portions of the road that are already complete.
In 1977, the Forest Service issued a draft environmental impact statement that discussed proposals for upgrading an existing unpaved road that runs through the Chimney Rock area. In response to comments on the draft statement, the Forest Service commissioned a study of American Indian cultural and religious sites in the area. The Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation adjoins the Six Rivers National Forest, and the Chimney Rock area has historically been used for religious purposes by Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa Indians. The commissioned study, which was completed in 1979, found that the entire area "is significant as an integral and indispensible part of Indian religious conceptualization and practice." App. 181. Specific sites are used for certain rituals, and "successful use of the [area] is dependent upon and facilitated by certain qualities of the physical environment, the most important of which are privacy, silence, and an undisturbed natural setting." Ibid. (footnote omitted). The study concluded that constructing a road along any of the available routes "would cause serious and irreparable damage to the sacred areas which are an integral and necessary part of the belief systems and lifeway of Northwest California Indian peoples." Id., at 182. Accordingly, the report recommended that the G-O road not be completed.
After exhausting their administrative remedies, respondents — an Indian organization, individual Indians, nature organizations and individual members of those organizations, and the State of California — challenged both the road-building and timber-harvesting decisions in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. Respondents claimed that the Forest Service's decisions violated the Free Exercise Clause, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA), 86 Stat. 896, as amended, 33 U. S. C. § 1251 et seq., the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), 83 Stat. 852, 42 U. S. C. § 4321 et seq., several other federal statutes, and governmental trust responsibilities to Indians living on the Hoopa Valley Reservation.
After a trial, the District Court issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the Government from constructing the Chimney Rock section of the G-O road or putting the timber-harvesting management plan into effect. See Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Assn. v. Peterson, 565 F.Supp. 586 (1983). The court found that both actions would violate
While an appeal was pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Congress enacted the California Wilderness Act of 1984, Pub. L. 98-425, 98 Stat. 1619. Under that statute, much of the property covered by the Forest Service's management plan is now designated a wilderness area, which means that commercial activities such as timber harvesting are forbidden. The statute exempts a narrow strip of land, coinciding with the Forest Service's proposed route for the remaining segment of the G-O road, from the wilderness designation. The legislative history indicates that this exemption was adopted "to enable the completion of the Gasquet-Orleans Road project if the responsible authorities so decide." S. Rep. No. 98-582, p. 29 (1984). The existing unpaved section of road, however, lies within the wilderness area and is therefore now closed to general traffic.
A panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed in part. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Assn. v. Peterson, 795 F.2d 688 (1986). The panel unanimously rejected the District Court's conclusion that the Government's proposed actions would breach its trust responsibilities to Indians on the Hoopa Valley Reservation. The panel also vacated the injunction to the extent that it had been rendered moot by the California Wilderness Act, which now prevents timber harvesting in certain areas covered by the District Court's order. The District Court's decision, to the extent that it rested on statutory grounds, was otherwise unanimously affirmed.
The dissenting judge argued that certain of the adverse effects on the Indian respondents' religious practices could be eliminated by less drastic measures than a ban on building the road, and that other actual or suggested adverse effects did not pose a serious threat to the Indians' religious practices. He also concluded that the injunction against timber harvesting needed to be reconsidered in light of the California Wilderness Act: "It is not clear whether the district court would have issued an injunction based upon the development of the remaining small parcels. Accordingly, I would remand to allow the district court to reevaluate its injunction in light of the Act." Id., at 704.
We begin by noting that the courts below did not articulate the bases of their decisions with perfect clarity. A fundamental and longstanding principle of judicial restraint requires that courts avoid reaching constitutional questions in advance of the necessity of deciding them. See Three
Neither the District Court nor the Court of Appeals explained or expressly articulated the necessity for their constitutional holdings. Were we persuaded that those holdings were unnecessary, we could simply vacate the relevant portions of the judgment below without discussing the merits of the constitutional issue. The structure and wording of the District Court's injunctive order, however, suggest that the statutory holdings would not have supported all the relief granted. The order is divided into four sections. Two of those sections deal with a 31,100-acre tract referred to as the Blue Creek Roadless Area. The injunction prohibits the Forest Service from engaging in timber harvesting or road building anywhere on the tract "unless and until" compliance with the NEPA and the FWPCA have been demonstrated. 565 F. Supp., at 606-607. The sections of the injunction dealing with the smaller Chimney Rock area (i. e., the area affected by the First Amendment challenge) are worded differently. The Forest Service is permanently enjoined, without any qualifying language, from constructing the proposed portion of the G-O road "and/or any alternative route" through that area; similarly, the injunction forbids timber harvesting or the construction of logging roads in the Chimney Rock area pursuant to the Forest Service's proposed management plan "or any other land management plan."
Because it appears reasonably likely that the First Amendment issue was necessary to the decisions below, we believe that it would be inadvisable to vacate and remand without addressing that issue on the merits. This conclusion is strengthened by considerations of judicial economy. The Government, which petitioned for certiorari on the constitutional issue alone, has informed us that it believes it can cure the statutory defects identified below, intends to do so, and will not challenge the adverse statutory rulings. Tr. of Oral Arg. 9-10. In this circumstance, it is difficult to see what principle would be vindicated by sending this case on what would almost certainly be a brief round trip to the courts below.
The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment provides that "Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]." It is undisputed that the Indian respondents' beliefs are sincere and that the Government's proposed actions will have severe adverse effects on the practice of their religion. Those respondents contend that the burden on their religious practices is heavy enough to violate the Free Exercise Clause unless the Government can demonstrate a compelling need to complete the G-O road or to engage in timber harvesting in the Chimney Rock area. We disagree.
We are asked to distinguish this case from Roy on the ground that the infringement on religious liberty here is "significantly greater," or on the ground that the Government practice in Roy was "purely mechanical" whereas this case involves "a case-by-case substantive determination as to how a particular unit of land will be managed." Brief for Indian Respondents 33-34. Similarly, we are told that this case can be distinguished from Roy because "the government action is not at some physically removed location where it places no restriction on what a practitioner may do." Brief for Respondent State of California 18. The State suggests that the Social Security number in Roy "could be characterized as interfering with Roy's religious tenets from a subjective point of view, where the government's conduct of `its own internal affairs' was known to him only secondhand and did not interfere with his ability to practice his religion." Id., at 19 (footnote omitted; internal citation omitted). In this case, however, it is said that the proposed road will "physically destro[y] the environmental conditions and the privacy without which the [religious] practices cannot be conducted." Ibid.
These efforts to distinguish Roy are unavailing. This Court cannot determine the truth of the underlying beliefs that led to the religious objections here or in Roy, see Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Comm'n of Fla., 480 U.S. 136, 144, n. 9 (1987), and accordingly cannot weigh the adverse effects
Respondents insist, nonetheless, that the courts below properly relied on a factual inquiry into the degree to which the Indians' spiritual practices would become ineffectual if the G-O road were built. They rely on several cases in which this Court has sustained free exercise challenges to government programs that interfered with individuals' ability to practice their religion. See Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972) (compulsory school-attendance law); Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963) (denial of unemployment benefits to applicant who refused to accept work requiring her to violate the Sabbath); Thomas v. Review Board, Indiana Employment Security Div., 450 U.S. 707 (1981) (denial of unemployment benefits to applicant whose religion forbade him to fabricate weapons); Hobbie, supra (denial of unemployment benefits to religious convert who resigned position that required her to work on the Sabbath).
Even apart from the inconsistency between Roy and respondents' reading of these cases, their interpretation will not withstand analysis. It is true that this Court has repeatedly held that indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions, are subject to scrutiny under the First Amendment. Thus, for example, ineligibility for unemployment benefits, based solely on a refusal to violate the Sabbath, has been analogized to a fine imposed on Sabbath worship. Sherbert, supra, at 404. This does not and cannot imply that incidental effects of government programs, which may make it more difficult to practice certain religions but which have no tendency to coerce individuals into acting contrary to their religious beliefs, require government to bring forward a compelling justification
Whatever may be the exact line between unconstitutional prohibitions on the free exercise of religion and the legitimate conduct by government of its own affairs, the location of the line cannot depend on measuring the effects of a governmental action on a religious objector's spiritual development. The Government does not dispute, and we have no reason to doubt, that the logging and road-building projects at issue in this case could have devastating effects on traditional Indian religious practices. Those practices are intimately and inextricably bound up with the unique features of the Chimney Rock area, which is known to the Indians as the "high country." Individual practitioners use this area for personal spiritual development; some of their activities are believed to be critically important in advancing the welfare of the Tribe, and indeed, of mankind itself. The Indians use this area, as they have used it for a very long time, to conduct a wide variety of specific rituals that aim to accomplish their religious goals. According to their beliefs, the rituals would not be efficacious if conducted at other sites than the ones traditionally used, and too much disturbance of the area's natural state would clearly render any meaningful continuation of traditional practices impossible. To be sure, the Indians themselves were far from unanimous in opposing the G-O road, see App. 180, and it seems less than certain that construction of the road will be so disruptive that it will doom their religion. Nevertheless, we can assume that the threat to the efficacy of at least some religious practices is extremely grave.
Even if we assume that we should accept the Ninth Circuit's prediction, according to which the G-O road will "virtually destroy the . . . Indians' ability to practice their religion,"
One need not look far beyond the present case to see why the analysis in Roy, but not respondents' proposed extension of Sherbert and its progeny, offers a sound reading of the Constitution. Respondents attempt to stress the limits of the religious servitude that they are now seeking to impose on the Chimney Rock area of the Six Rivers National Forest. While defending an injunction against logging operations and the construction of a road, they apparently do not at present object to the area's being used by recreational visitors, other Indians, or forest rangers. Nothing in the principle for which they contend, however, would distinguish this case from another lawsuit in which they (or similarly situated religious objectors) might seek to exclude all human activity but
The Constitution does not permit government to discriminate against religions that treat particular physical sites as sacred, and a law prohibiting the Indian respondents from visiting the Chimney Rock area would raise a different set of constitutional questions. Whatever rights the Indians may have to the use of the area, however, those rights do not divest the Government of its right to use what is, after all, its land. Cf. Bowen v. Roy, 476 U. S., at 724-727 (O'CONNOR, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (distinguishing between the Government's use of information in its possession and the Government's requiring an individual to provide such information).
Nothing in our opinion should be read to encourage governmental insensitivity to the religious needs of any citizen.
Although the Forest Service did not in the end adopt the report's recommendation that the project be abandoned, many other ameliorative measures were planned. No sites where specific rituals take place were to be disturbed. In fact, a major factor in choosing among alternative routes for the road was the relation of the various routes to religious sites: the route selected by the Regional Forester is, he noted, "the farthest removed from contemporary spiritual sites; thus, the adverse audible intrusions associated with the road would be less than all other alternatives." App. 102. Nor were the Forest Service's concerns limited to "audible intrusions." As the dissenting judge below observed, 10 specific steps were planned to reduce the visual impact of the road on the surrounding country. See 795 F. 2d, at 703 (Beezer, J., dissenting in part).
Except for abandoning its project entirely, and thereby leaving the two existing segments of road to dead-end in the middle of a National Forest, it is difficult to see how the Government could have been more solicitous. Such solicitude accords with "the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions
Respondents, however, suggest that AIRFA goes further and in effect enacts their interpretation of the First Amendment into statutory law. Although this contention was rejected by the District Court, they seek to defend the judgment below by arguing that AIRFA authorizes the injunction against completion of the G-O road. This argument is without merit. After reciting several legislative findings, AIRFA "resolves" upon the policy quoted above. A second section of the statute, 92 Stat. 470, required an evaluation of federal policies and procedures, in consultation with native religious leaders, of changes necessary to protect and preserve the rights and practices in question. The required report dealing with this evaluation was completed and released in 1979. Reply Brief for Petitioners 2, n. 3. Nowhere in the law is there so much as a hint of any intent to create a cause of action or any judicially enforceable individual rights.
What is obvious from the face of the statute is confirmed by numerous indications in the legislative history. The sponsor of the bill that became AIRFA, Representative Udall, called it "a sense of Congress joint resolution," aimed at ensuring that "the basic right of the Indian people to exercise their traditional religious practices is not infringed without a clear decision on the part of the Congress or the administrators that such religious practices must yield to some higher consideration." 124 Cong. Rec. 21444 (1978). Representative Udall emphasized that the bill would not "confer special religious rights on Indians," would "not change any existing State or Federal law," and in fact "has no teeth in it." Id., at 21444-21445.
The dissent proposes an approach to the First Amendment that is fundamentally inconsistent with the principles on which our decision rests. Notwithstanding the sympathy that we all must feel for the plight of the Indian respondents, it is plain that the approach taken by the dissent cannot withstand analysis. On the contrary, the path towards which it points us is incompatible with the text of the Constitution, with the precedents of this Court, and with a responsible sense of our own institutional role.
The dissent begins by asserting that the "constitutional guarantee we interpret today . . . is directed against any form of government action that frustrates or inhibits religious practice." Post, at 459 (emphasis added). The Constitution, however, says no such thing. Rather, it states: "Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]." U. S. Const., Amdt. 1 (emphasis added).
As we explained above, Bowen v. Roy rejected a First Amendment challenge to Government activities that the religious objectors sincerely believed would " ` "rob the spirit" of [their] daughter and prevent her from attaining greater spiritual power.' " See supra, at 448 (quoting Roy, 476 U. S., at 696). The dissent now offers to distinguish that case by saying that the Government was acting there "in a purely internal manner," whereas land-use decisions "are likely to have substantial external effects." Post, at 470. Whatever the source or meaning of the dissent's distinction, it has no basis in Roy. Robbing the spirit of a child, and preventing her from attaining greater spiritual power, is both a "substantial external effect" and one that is remarkably similar to the injury claimed by respondents in the case before us today. The dissent's reading of Roy would effectively overrule that decision, without providing any compelling justification for doing so.
The dissent also misreads Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972). The statute at issue in that case prohibited the
Perceiving a "stress point in the longstanding conflict between two disparate cultures," the dissent attacks us for declining to "balanc[e] these competing and potentially irreconcilable interests, choosing instead to turn this difficult task over to the Federal Legislature." Post, at 473. Seeing the Court as the arbiter, the dissent proposes a legal test under which it would decide which public lands are "central" or "indispensable" to which religions, and by implication which are "dispensable" or "peripheral," and would then decide which government programs are "compelling" enough to justify "infringement of those practices." Post, at 475. We would accordingly be required to weigh the value of every religious belief and practice that is said to be threatened by any government program. Unless a "showing of `centrality,' " post, at 474, is nothing but an assertion of centrality, see post, at 475, the dissent thus offers us the prospect of this Court's holding that some sincerely held religious beliefs and practices are not "central" to certain religions, despite protestations to the contrary from the religious objectors who brought the lawsuit. In other words, the dissent's approach would
The decision of the court below, according to which the First Amendment precludes the Government from completing the G-O road or from permitting timber harvesting in the Chimney Rock area, is reversed. In order that the District Court's injunction may be reconsidered in light of this holding, and in the light of any other relevant events that may have intervened since the injunction issued, the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
JUSTICE KENNEDY took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
JUSTICE BRENNAN, with whom JUSTICE MARSHALL and JUSTICE BLACKMUN join, dissenting.
" `[T]he Free Exercise Clause,' " the Court explains today, " `is written in terms of what the government cannot do to the individual, not in terms of what the individual can exact from the government.' " Ante, at 451 (quoting Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 412 (1963) (Douglas, J., concurring)). Pledging fidelity to this unremarkable constitutional principle, the Court nevertheless concludes that even where the Government uses federal land in a manner that threatens the very existence of a Native American religion, the Government is simply not "doing" anything to the practitioners of that faith. Instead, the Court believes that Native Americans who request that the Government refrain from destroying their religion effectively seek to exact from the Government de facto beneficial ownership of federal property. These two astonishing conclusions follow naturally from the Court's determination
For at least 200 years and probably much longer, the Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa Indians have held sacred an approximately 25-square-mile area of land situated in what is today the Blue Creek Unit of Six Rivers National Forest in northwestern California. As the Government readily concedes, regular visits to this area, known to respondent Indians as the "high country," have played and continue to play a "critical" role in the religious practices and rituals of these Tribes. Brief for Petitioners 3. Those beliefs, only briefly described in the Court's opinion, are crucial to a proper understanding of respondents' claims.
As the Forest Service's commissioned study, the Theodoratus Report, explains, for Native Americans religion is not a discrete sphere of activity separate from all others, and any attempt to isolate the religious aspects of Indian life "is in reality an exercise which forces Indian concepts into non-Indian categories." App. 110; D. Theodoratus, Cultural Resources of the Chimney Rock Section, Gasquet-Orleans Road, Six Rivers National Forest (1979). Thus, for most Native Americans, "[t]he area of worship cannot be delineated from
In marked contrast to traditional Western religions, the belief systems of Native Americans do not rely on doctrines, creeds, or dogmas. Established or universal truths — the mainstay of Western religions — play no part in Indian faith. Ceremonies are communal efforts undertaken for specific purposes in accordance with instructions handed down from generation to generation. Commentaries on or interpretations of the rituals themselves are deemed absolute violations of the ceremonies, whose value lies not in their ability to explain the natural world or to enlighten individual believers but in their efficacy as protectors and enhancers of tribal existence. Ibid. Where dogma lies at the heart of Western religions, Native American faith is inextricably
For respondent Indians, the most sacred of lands is the high country where, they believe, prehuman spirits moved with the coming of humans to the Earth. Because these spirits are seen as the source of religious power, or "medicine," many of the tribes' rituals and practices require frequent journeys to the area. Thus, for example, religious leaders preparing for the complex of ceremonies that underlie the Tribes' World Renewal efforts must travel to specific sites in the high country in order to attain the medicine necessary for successful renewal. Similarly, individual tribe members may seek curative powers for the healing of the sick, or personal medicine for particular purposes such as good luck in singing, hunting, or love. A period of preparation generally precedes such visits, and individuals must select trails in the sacred area according to the medicine they seek and their abilities, gradually moving to increasingly more powerful sites, which are typically located at higher altitudes. Among the most powerful of sites are Chimney Rock, Doctor Rock, and Peak 8, all of which are elevated rock outcroppings.
Beginning in 1972, the Forest Service began preparing a multiple-use management plan for the Blue Creek Unit. The plan's principal features included the harvesting of 733 million board feet of Douglas fir over an 80-year period and the completion of a 6-mile segment of paved road running between two northern California towns, Gasquet and Orleans (the G-O road). The road's primary purpose was to provide a route for hauling the timber harvested under the management plan; in addition, it would enhance public access to the Six Rivers and other national forests, and allow for more efficient maintenance and fire control by the Forest Service itself. In the mid-1970's, the Forest Service circulated draft environmental impact statements evaluating the effects of several proposed routes for the final segment of the G-O road, including at least two that circumnavigated the high country altogether. Ultimately, however, the Service settled on a route running along the Chimney Rock Corridor, which traverses the Indians' sacred lands.
Respondent Indians brought suit to enjoin implementation of the plan, alleging that the road construction and timber harvesting would impermissibly interfere with their religious practices in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First
While the case was pending on appeal before the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Congress passed the California Wilderness Act of 1984, Pub. L. 98-425, 98 Stat. 1619, which designates most of the Blue Creek Unit a wilderness area, and thus precludes logging and all other commercial activities in most of the area covered by the Forest Service's management plan. Thereafter, the Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's determination that the proposed harvesting and construction activities violated respondents' constitutional rights. Recognizing that the high country is "indispensable" to the religious lives of the approximately 5,000 Tribe members who reside in the area, Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Assn. v. Peterson, 795 F.2d 688, 692 (1986), the court concluded "that the proposed government operations would virtually destroy the . . . Indians' ability to practice their religion." Id., at 693 (emphasis added).
The Court does not for a moment suggest that the interests served by the G-O road are in any way compelling, or that they outweigh the destructive effect construction of the road will have on respondents' religious practices. Instead, the Court embraces the Government's contention that its prerogative as landowner should always take precedence over a claim that a particular use of federal property infringes religious practices. Attempting to justify this rule, the Court argues that the First Amendment bars only outright prohibitions, indirect coercion, and penalties on the free exercise of religion. All other "incidental effects of government programs," it concludes, even those "which may make it more difficult to practice certain religions but which have no tendency to coerce individuals into acting contrary to their religious beliefs," simply do not give rise to constitutional concerns. See ante, at 450. Since our recognition nearly half a century ago that restraints on religious conduct implicate the concerns of the Free Exercise Clause, see Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944), we have never suggested that the protections of the guarantee are limited to so narrow a range of governmental burdens. The land-use decision challenged here will restrain respondents from practicing their religion as surely and as completely as any of the governmental actions we have struck down in the past, and the Court's efforts simply to define away respondents' injury
The Court ostensibly finds support for its narrow formulation of religious burdens in our decisions in Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Comm'n of Fla., 480 U.S. 136 (1987), Thomas v. Review Bd., Indiana Employment Security Division, 450 U.S. 707 (1981), and Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963). In those cases, the laws at issue forced individuals to choose between adhering to specific religious tenets and forfeiting unemployment benefits on the one hand, and accepting work repugnant to their religious beliefs on the other. The religions involved, therefore, lent themselves to the coercion analysis the Court espouses today, for they proscribed certain conduct such as munitions work (Thomas) or working on Saturdays (Sherbert, Hobbie) that the unemployment benefits laws effectively compelled. In sustaining the challenges to these laws, however, we nowhere suggested that such coercive compulsion exhausted the range of religious burdens recognized under the Free Exercise Clause.
Indeed, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972), we struck down a state compulsory school attendance law on free exercise grounds not so much because of the affirmative coercion the law exerted on individual religious practitioners, but because of "the impact that compulsory high school attendance could have on the continued survival of Amish communities." Id., at 209 (emphasis added). Like respondents here, the Amish view life as pervasively religious and their faith accordingly dictates their entire lifestyle. See id., at 210. Detailed as their religious rules are, however, the parents in Yoder did not argue that their religion expressly proscribed public education beyond the eighth grade; rather, they objected to the law because "the values . . . of the modern secondary school are in sharp conflict with the fundamental mode of life mandated by the Amish religion." Id., at 217 (emphasis added). By exposing Amish children "to a
I thus cannot accept the Court's premise that the form of the government's restraint on religious practice, rather than its effect, controls our constitutional analysis. Respondents here have demonstrated that construction of the G-O road will completely frustrate the practice of their religion, for as the lower courts found, the proposed logging and construction activities will virtually destroy respondents' religion, and will therefore necessarily force them into abandoning those practices altogether. Indeed, the Government's proposed activities will restrain religious practice to a far greater degree here than in any of the cases cited by the Court today. None of the religious adherents in Hobbie, Thomas, and Sherbert, for example, claimed or could have claimed that the denial of unemployment benefits rendered the practice of their religions impossible; at most, the challenged laws made those practices more expensive. Here, in stark contrast, respondents have claimed — and proved — that the desecration of the high country will prevent religious leaders from attaining the religious power or medicine indispensable to the success of virtually all their rituals and ceremonies. Similarly, in Yoder the compulsory school law threatened to "undermin[e] the Amish community and religious practice," and thus to force adherents to "abandon belief. . . or . . . to migrate to some other and more tolerant region." 406 U. S., at 218. Here the threat posed by the desecration of sacred lands that are indisputably essential to
Ultimately, the Court's coercion test turns on a distinction between governmental actions that compel affirmative conduct inconsistent with religious belief, and those governmental actions that prevent conduct consistent with religious belief. In my view, such a distinction is without constitutional significance. The crucial word in the constitutional text, as the Court itself acknowledges, is "prohibit," see ante, at 451, a comprehensive term that in no way suggests that the intended protection is aimed only at governmental actions that coerce affirmative conduct.
Nor can I agree with the Court's assertion that respondents' constitutional claim is foreclosed by our decision in Bowen v. Roy, 476 U.S. 693 (1986). There, applicants for certain welfare benefits objected to the use of a Social Security number in connection with the administration of their 2-year-old daughter's application for benefits, contending that such use would "rob the [child's] spirit" and thus interfere with her spiritual development. In rejecting that challenge,
Today the Court professes an inability to differentiate Roy from the present case, suggesting that "[t]he building of a road or the harvesting of timber on publicly owned land cannot meaningfully be distinguished from the use of a Social Security number." Ante, at 449. I find this inability altogether remarkable. In Roy, we repeatedly stressed the "internal" nature of the Government practice at issue: noting that Roy objected to "the widespread use of the social security number by the federal or state governments in their computer systems," 476 U. S., at 697 (citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted; emphasis added), we likened the use of such recordkeeping numbers to decisions concerning the purchase of office equipment. When the Government processes information, of course, it acts in a purely internal manner, and any free exercise challenge to such internal recordkeeping in effect seeks to dictate how the Government conducts its own affairs.
Federal land-use decisions, by contrast, are likely to have substantial external effects that government decisions concerning
The Court today, however, ignores Roy's emphasis on the internal nature of the Government practice at issue there,
In the final analysis, the Court's refusal to recognize the constitutional dimension of respondents' injuries stems from its concern that acceptance of respondents' claim could potentially strip the Government of its ability to manage and use vast tracts of federal property. See ante, at 452-453. In addition, the nature of respondents' site-specific religious practices raises the specter of future suits in which Native Americans seek to exclude all human activity from such areas. Ibid. These concededly legitimate concerns lie at the very heart of this case, which represents yet another stress point in the longstanding conflict between two disparate cultures — the dominant Western culture, which views land in terms of ownership and use, and that of Native Americans, in which concepts of private property are not only alien, but contrary to a belief system that holds land sacred. Rather than address this conflict in any meaningful fashion, however, the Court disclaims all responsibility for balancing these competing and potentially irreconcilable interests, choosing instead to turn this difficult task over to the Federal Legislature. Such an abdication is more than merely indefensible as an institutional matter: by defining respondents' injury as "nonconstitutional," the Court has effectively bestowed on one party to this conflict the unilateral authority to resolve all future disputes in its favor, subject only to the Court's toothless exhortation to be "sensitive" to affected religions. In my view, however, Native Americans deserve — and the Constitution demands — more than this.
Prior to today's decision, several Courts of Appeals had attempted to fashion a test that accommodates the competing "demands" placed on federal property by the two cultures. Recognizing that the Government normally enjoys plenary authority over federal lands, the Courts of Appeals required Native Americans to demonstrate that any land-use decisions they challenged involved lands that were "central" or "indispensable" to their religious practices. See, e. g., Northwest
I believe it appropriate, therefore, to require some showing of "centrality" before the Government can be required either to come forward with a compelling justification for its proposed use of federal land or to forgo that use altogether. "Centrality," however, should not be equated with the survival or extinction of the religion itself. In Yoder, for example, we treated the objection to the compulsory school attendance of adolescents as "central" to the Amish faith even though such attendance did not prevent or otherwise render the practice of that religion impossible, and instead simply
The Court today suggests that such an approach would place courts in the untenable position of deciding which practices and beliefs are "central" to a given faith and which are not, and invites the prospect of judges advising some religious adherents that they "misunderstand their own religious beliefs." Ante, at 458. In fact, however, courts need not undertake any such inquiries: like all other religious adherents, Native Americans would be the arbiters of which practices are central to their faith, subject only to the normal requirement that their claims be genuine and sincere. The question for the courts, then, is not whether the Native American claimants understand their own religion, but rather whether they have discharged their burden of demonstrating, as the Amish did with respect to the compulsory school law in Yoder, that the land-use decision poses a substantial and realistic threat of undermining or frustrating their religious practices. Ironically, the Court's apparent solicitude for the integrity of religious belief and its desire to forestall the possibility that courts might second-guess the
Similarly, the Court's concern that the claims of Native Americans will place "religious servitudes" upon vast tracts of federal property cannot justify its refusal to recognize the constitutional injury respondents will suffer here. It is true, as the Court notes, that respondents' religious use of the high country requires privacy and solitude. The fact remains, however, that respondents have never asked the Forest Service to exclude others from the area. Should respondents or any other group seek to force the Government to protect their religious practices from the interference of private parties, such a demand would implicate not only the concerns of the Free Exercise Clause, but also those of the Establishment Clause as well. That case, however, is most assuredly not before us today, and in any event cannot justify the Court's refusal to acknowledge that the injuries respondents will suffer as a result of the Government's proposed activities are sufficient to state a constitutional cause of action.
Today, the Court holds that a federal land-use decision that promises to destroy an entire religion does not burden the practice of that faith in a manner recognized by the Free Exercise Clause. Having thus stripped respondents and all other Native Americans of any constitutional protection against perhaps the most serious threat to their age-old religious practices, and indeed to their entire way of life, the Court assures us that nothing in its decision "should be read to encourage governmental insensitivity to the religious
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation et al. by John A. Powell, Steven R. Shapiro, Paul L. Hoffman, Mark D. Rosenbaum, Alan L. Schlosser, Edward M. Chen, Matthew A. Coles, and Stephen L. Pevar; for the American Jewish Congress et al. by Marc D. Stern, Lois C. Waldman, and Amy Adelson; and for the Christian Legal Society et al. by Michael J. Woodruff, Samuel Rabinove, Richard T. Foltin, and Jordan Lorence.
Steven C. Moore filed a brief for the National Congress of American Indians et al. as amici curiae.