In Texas last March, members of the Lipan Apache tribe gathered for a ritual dance, which, in accordance with the tribe’s traditions, involved eagle feathers. Unbeknownst to the participants, a polite observer was in fact an undercover agent for the Fish and Wildlife Service—investigating the possession of contraband—who attempted to confiscate the feathers and threatened the pastor presiding over the ceremony with fines or even prison. Mitchell Rocklin and David Mehl comment:
Contrary to popular opinion, most religious liberty cases do not involve same-sex marriage, abortion, or anti-discrimination laws. They involve religious believers like [the Lipan Apache] Pastor Robert Soto who simply want the government to leave them alone so they can observe their faith in peace.
Most of the feathers the agent confiscated came from eagles and other birds covered by the Migratory Birds Treaty Act. This law prohibits possessing feathers that come from a long list of birds. Because many Native Americans use eagle feathers in religious and cultural ceremonies, the Department of the Interior created an exception that allows Native Americans to possess them.
But there’s a catch. The exception is limited to members of federally registered tribes, and not all Native Americans belong to these tribes. The Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, for example, is recognized by historians, anthropologists, and the state of Texas, but not by the federal government. . . . Consequently, its members cannot legally own eagle feathers. The federal government does not doubt the religiosity of these tribes’ members. Nevertheless, it refuses to allow them to practice their faith.
As members of a minority faith, Jews have a particular interest in ensuring that religious-liberty protections cover every American.