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Sacred site policy at Rainbow Bridge to stand

A federal policy aimed at protecting a sacred site in Utah withstood another legal challenge on Tuesday.

Without comment, the U.S. Supreme Court refused an appeal filed by a conservative group that is fighting protections for several sacred sites. Mountain States Legal Foundation contends the government's policies violate the rights of non-Indians.

In Utah, the group opposed a National Park Service decision to place signs at Rainbow Bridge National Monument discouraging visitors from approaching and walking under Rainbow Bridge. The world's largest natural bridge is considered sacred by the Hopi, Navajo and other tribes in the Southwest.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the case last March. A three-judge panel ruled that the non-Indian plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the policy.

But at the time, the court said it didn't reach the merits of the policy. For that reason, William Perry, president of Mountain States, said the case "will not go away" and predicted it would end up before the Supreme Court again.

"We are very disappointed that the Supreme Court declined to hear this case, which concerns an increasingly important issue in the West, that is, the willingness of federal land managers to close public land because it is sacred to American Indians," Perry said.

After years of battles, tribes have slowly convinced the federal government to be more active in protecting sacred sites located on public lands. In Wyoming, climbing is discouraged at Devils Tower National Monument during Sundance ceremonies. In Nevada, climbing is outright banned at Cave Rock, held sacred by the Washoe Tribe.

State governments also have taken a stand. Arizona's Department of Transportation won't buy materials mined from a site that is sacred to the Zuni, Hopi and Navajo tribes.

Mountain States, which formerly employed Interior Secretary Gale Norton, has taken a dim view of the protections, alleging they violate the U.S. Constitution's ban from establishing a religion or preferring one religion over another.

The courts, however, haven't bought into this line of thinking. As recently as September, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Mountain States' challenge to Arizona's sacred site policy.

"Native American sacred sites of historical value are entitled to the same protection as the many Judeo-Christian religious sites," Judge Betty B. Fletcher wrote for the majority.

Despite the victories, tribal leaders and Native activists say safeguards for sacred sites, burial grounds and other important places are still lacking. Many point fingers at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency whose waterworks projects have destroyed countless sites throughout the nation.

The public's understanding also has a long way to go. In Washington, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has come under fire for opposing construction at an historic village where hundreds of ancestors are buried. The state is being pressured to restart work at the site but says it won't give in to the demands.

Lower Court Decision:
Natural Arch and Bridge Society v. Alston (March 23, 2004)

Relevant Links:
Rainbow Bridge National Monument -
Rainbow Bridge Case, Mountain States Legal Foundation -