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United States v. Antoine



Defendant Antoine appealed his conviction under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA),[1] as a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).[2] Antoine, a member of the Cowichen Band of the Salish Indian Tribe in British Columbia, obtained dead eagles in Canada and brought the eagle parts to the United States where he exchanged them for money and goods. Antoine alleged that this exchange was part of his native custom of potlatch. The district court assumed that all of Antoine’s conduct was of religious significance.

The BGEPA makes it illegal to “‘knowingly . . . take, possess, sell, purchase, barter, offer to sell, purchase or barter, transport, export or import, at any time or in any manner, any bald eagle’ or part thereof.”[3] However, the BGEPA contains an exception for members of federally recognized tribes allowing them to “apply for permits to possess and transport eagles or eagle parts for religious purposes.”[4] Antoine was not a member of a federally recognized tribe. Antoine argued that he was exempt from the BGEPA because it imposed a substantial burden on his exercise of religion and it was not the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government interest. The district court recognized that the BGEPA imposed a substantial burden on Antoine; however, the court found that the act met the standards of strict scrutiny. The Ninth Circuit found that the government had a compelling interest in protecting eagles as a threatened or endangered species. Furthermore, the court found that “the permit scheme was the least restrictive means of pursuing that interest.”[5] The court rejected Antoine’s attempts to distinguish United States v. Hugs,[6] a case which held that the government’s interest in protecting threatened or endangered species was compelling and that the permit scheme was the least restrictive means of realizing that interest. First, Antoine argued that because the United States Fish and Wildlife Service had proposed a rule to remove the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) from the threatened species list, the government’s interest was now less compelling. The Ninth Circuit explained that although the government’s interest may be less, the government is not required to relitigate that interest unless evidence is provided that proves there has been a “substantial change in relevant circumstances.”[7] Thus, the court found the proposed delisting rule to be insufficient to warrant relitigation. Second, Antoine argued that his exclusion from the permit scheme violated RFRA. The court in Hugs did not address whether the permit scheme’s restriction to recognized tribe members was valid.[8] Here, the court noted that the supply of eagles is fixed and that the holding in Hugs that the permit was the least restrictive means of protecting eagles, ended “any challenge to the government’s refusal to increase supply beyond that.”[9] The court noted that RFRA requires that least restrictive means be implemented to avoid substantial burdens on religion, and that Antoine was asking the government to burden other religions more than his. The court concluded that this was not an appropriate claim and that an alternative is not less restrictive if it places additional burdens on others.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that the permit program in the BGEPA did not discriminate facially on the basis of religion because Antoine was excluded based on his affiliation with a nonrecognized tribe, not his religion. Thus, the court found that Antoine’s prosecution was not a violation of RFRA because tribal membership was a rational basis for excluding him from the statutory exception.

[1] 16 U.S.C. §§ 668-668d (2000).

[2] 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb-2000bb-4 (2000).

[3] United States v. Antoine, 318 F.3d 919, 920 (9th Cir. 2003) (quoting 16 U.S.C. § 668(a) (2000)).

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at 921.

[6] 109 F.3d 1375 (9th Cir. 1997).

[7] Antoine, 318 F.3d at 922 (emphasis in original).

[8] 109 F.3d 1375 (9th Cir. 1997) (per curiam).

[9] Antoine, 318 F.3d at 923.

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