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Comanche Nation battles Army over sacred site
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Filed Under: Environment | Law

A federal judge has blocked the U.S. Army from starting a construction project at Fort Sill in Oklahoma out of concern for the religious rights of the Comanche Nation.

The tribe says it wasn't consulted about the development of a training service center near the foot of Medicine Bluffs, a sacred site at Fort Sill. Work was scheduled to begin on Monday until Judge Timothy D. DeGiusti issued a temporary restraining order.

"The court finds that, given the nature of the interests which plaintiffs in this case seek to protect, irreparable harm will result if the construction project commences," DeGiusti wrote in the five-page order.

The decision only blocks work until September 1 so the tribe still has to plead its case for a permanent injunction. Briefs from both sides of the dispute are due today.

Medicine Bluffs is one of the more prominent landmarks within Fort Sill, which was built during the Indian wars of the late 1800s. The site a place of immense healing and spiritual medicine for the Comanche people.

"As a Comanche man, Medicine Bluffs is the spiritual center of my religious beliefs and the heart of the current Comanche Nation," Jimmy Arterberry, a tribal member, said in a court declaration. "The Medicine Bluffs site is an extremely important sacred place to me as a Comanche man."

The Army plans to build a warehouse for the training service center at a place where Arterberry goes to pray and hold ceremonies. He believes any development would stop him from viewing Medicine Bluffs and practicing his religion.

In an August 2006 environmental assessment, the Army says it contacted nine tribes, including the Comanche Nation, about development but didn't receive a response. "The construction will have no adverse effect on Native American traditional, cultural, or religious sites," Fort Sill said in a statement to KSWO-TV last month.

The tribe's briefs cite the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Congress wrote after a U.S. Supreme Court decision involving practitioners of the Native American Church. The law bars a federal agency from taking actions that "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion" unless the agency can cite a "compelling governmental interest."

A recent case involving RFRA shows that meeting the test can be difficult for tribal practitioners. In an August 8 decision, a full panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the presence of artificial snow at a sacred site in Arizona doesn't violate RFRA because tribal members aren't prevented from going to the San Francisco Peaks for ceremonies and other activities.

According to the court's 8-3 ruling, the artificial snow only impacts the tribes' "feelings" about their religion and the "fervor" in which tribal members practice their religion.

In court briefs, attorneys for the Comanche Nation acknowledged the ruling in Navajo Nation v. U.S. Forest Service. But they said the Fort Sill case is different because construction of the warehouse would physically impair tribal members from practicing their religion.

The tribe also notes that the Army could build the warehouse elsewhere in the 94,000-acre Fort Sill without affecting Medicine Bluffs, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Fort Sill itself is a National Historic Landmark.

Temporary Restraining Order:
Comanche Nation v. US (August 18, 2008)

9th Circuit Decision:
Navajo Nation v. US Forest Service (August 8, 2008)

Related Stories:
Appeals court reverses course on sacred site (8/12)

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