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Navajo Nation v. United States Forest Service

United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
535 F.3d 1058 (9th Cir. 2008) (en banc)


The Snowbowl ski area (Snowbowl) is located in the San Francisco Peaks (Peaks) in Arizona. The Peaks are important to the Navajo Indian tribes (plaintiffs) in the region, because they are a site of religious practice. The Navajo believed that desecration of the Peaks could cause disasters to occur. In 2002, Snowbowl requested an upgrade to its facilities to allow for artificial snowmaking using recycled wastewater. Although the wastewater was deemed fit for human consumption, it contained .0001 percent human waste. The United States Forest Service (USFS) (defendant) ultimately approved Snowbowl’s request but included provisions allowing the Navajo to continue to use the Peaks for religious ceremonies and requiring periodic inspection of the religious sites on the Peaks. In response, the Navajo sued, arguing that the use of the recycled wastewater desecrated the Peaks and had a negative effect on their religious practices. The district court held that USFS’s approval of Snowbowl’s proposal was not a substantial burden on the Navajo’s rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq., because the proposal did not coerce the Navajo into violating their religious beliefs or penalize their religious activity. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, and the case was taken en banc.

Rule of Law


Holding and Reasoning (Bea, J.)

Dissent (Fletcher, J.)

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