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Russian orthodox Church in Anchorage

Here is an interesting question (to me anyway). What legal mechanism prevents the Federal Government from banning your church?

(Hopefully, they don’t want to, but humor me…)

That would be the First Amendment, right, or more precisely the ‘free exercise clause’ of the First Amendment.

Okay, so what stops your state government from banning your church?

It’s not the First Amendment, not alone anyway. The relevant text of the First Amendment reads as follows; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” So, that prevents CONGRESS, and by extension other Federal entities operating under the authority of Congress, from banning your church. It doesn’t say anything about the actions of state governments.

What would prevent a state government from doing such a thing?

That would be the Fourteenth Amendment, or perhaps the First Amendment, as incorporated into state jurisdiction via the Fourteenth Amendment.

Section I of the Fourteenth Amendment reads as follows (emphasis added):

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

This is significantly more ambiguous, of course, but I do believe most people, and more importantly, most of the relevant legal authorities, generally take this to mean that state governments have been operating under the free exercise clause (or some principle like it) since the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Okay, good fun, right?

Now here is a question, most Americans might not think about. What prevents a tribal government from banning a church on their own lands?

By tribal government, I mean the government of any Federally recognized tribe within the United States. We are talking about American Indians or Alaska Natives here. So, I am asking what legal mechanism would prevent a tribal government representing one of the indigenous peoples of the United States from banning a church under the own jurisdiction?

It isn’t any explicit measure in the U.S. Constitution itself.


There is nothing specific in the text of the U.S. Constitution which limits the authority of a tribal government to restrict the religious activities of anyone subject to their jurisdiction. Congress has of course asserted plenary power to alter the relationship between tribal governments and the Federal Government at will since Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903). (At least that is when the doctrine of ‘plenary power’ received its most explicit expression under the Federal courts.) Still, absent any explicit action from Congress restricting the authority of an Indian tribe, indigenous people are assumed under U.S. Law to retain any sovereign powers they had before colonization began. So, in the absence of any clear Federal statement to the Contrary, a tribal government may resolve the matter of religion and religious freedom as they deem fit. (Some would argue, that is exactly how it ought to work.) In any event, the Tenth District of the Federal Courts ruled in 1959 that no such law existed. According to the decision in Native American Church v. Navajo Tribal Council (1959), neither the U.S. Constitution nor any Federal Law obligates tribal governments to respect the free exercise clause or any principle like it.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, some would say that is how it should be. Let indigenous people settle any questions about religious freedom for their own members (or others subject to their jurisdiction) themselves! For good or for ill, it’s their business.

Well, that’s not what happened.

What happened was The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968.

In other words, the answer to my third question is The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968.

What stops a tribal government from banning a church is The Indian Civil Rights Act. This was part of a larger Federal Law expanding civil rights in a number of areas (most of which were of more direct concern to African Americans at the time). The Indian Civil Rights Act applies most of the provisions of the Bill of Rights to the actions of tribal governments. Significantly, it does not incorporate the establishment clause of the First Amendment into tribal jurisdiction. Tribal governments are free to establish their own religions, but they are not free to restrict the religious activities of those subject to their jurisdiction.

You can see this in the relevant text.

“No Indian tribe in exercising powers of self-government shall—

  1. make or enforce any law prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition for a redress of grievances…”

Note that there is a clear reference to the principle of free exercise, and yet, there is no mention of establishment. So, you can see it in the text. The Indian Civil Rights Act only incorporates 1 of the 2 basic religion clauses of the First Amendment into the context of tribal government. This somewhat belies the thinking of America’s founding fathers who might have suggested that the two clauses work together to ensure that religion will not become a source of abuse, or more to the point, to prevent an establishment of religion from becoming the reason religious freedom is restricted, but of course all of this ignores the context of colonialism here. The power of any religious establishment that might occur under tribal jurisdiction is significantly blunted by the presence of a larger Federal government which has already compromised a great deal of tribal sovereignty,not to mention state governments eager to eat away at what might be left of tribal sovereignty. In any event, the thinking at the time the ICRA was passed is that traditional tribal government is far too entangled with the ceremonial systems and spiritual narratives of the people in question to introduce the proverbial “separation of church and state.”

Of course, the ICRA has other significant limitations, particularly insofar as anyone might attempt to apply it to civil disputes, but that’s another matter.

All of this is to say nothing whatsoever about the religious freedoms of Native Americans facing regulations by the Federal and State governments. That’s a whole other messy history in itself.

Damned ugly one at that!

Finally, one reason I think this little exercise is worth doing is it helps to illustrate the way that religious freedom sits in the context of American law. Most people just think they have a right of religious freedom. They don’t really distinguish the establishment clause from the free exercise clause much less make a serious effort to think about how these measures relate to one another. More importantly, folks tend not to think very carefully about the way that concepts of religious freedom play out in different layers of American government. Of course far too many people, think government is government is government, until they are pushed to start making distinctions, but the point at the present is this, religious freedom is not simply an abstract concept under the U.S. Constitution. It takes the form of specific limitations applied to specific levels of government through different legal provisions. Religious Freedom takes different forms in relation to different layers of American government.