In 2012, the Interior Department imposed a 20-year ban on new uranium mining on over a million acres of federal land in Arizona near the Grand Canyon. One of the reasons for the ban was concern over groundwater contamination. But another reason cited was to preserve “cultural and tribal resources” on the land because the area “as a whole is of profound significance and importance to Native American tribes.”
Several mining organizations and local governments—concerned about the economic consequences of the mining ban—sued the Interior Department shortly after the ban was finalized. They claimed, among other things, that the government showed favoritism for religion and violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by banning mining because of the religious importance of the land to Native Americans. They claimed that this rationale was not a “secular” purpose, which First Amendment law requires.
Late last year, the Ninth Circuit rejected the challengers’ argument and ruled for the government. The Court, noting “the central role of religion in human societies,” said that preserving sites for cultural or historic reasons can constitute a “secular” purpose, even if that significance has a connection to religion. The Court pointed out that such sites include National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., California’s missions, and Alaska’s Russian-era Orthodox churches. Essentially, the government’s “motivating purpose” in treating these sites as special was because of their historical/cultural character, not their religious character.
Case: Nat’l Mining Ass’n v. Zinke, No. 14-17350 (9th Cir. Dec. 12, 2017) (opinion here)