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Medicine wheel in legal dispute

Posted by Mikola 18 to NDN AIM

November 16, 2002

SHERIDAN, Wyo. (AP) - A dispute continues over whether 23,000 acres can legally be set aside to protect the view from a sacred American Indian medicine wheel.

A federal district court last year ruled against Wyoming Sawmills Inc., of Sheridan, in its challenge of the protections for Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark in Bighorn National Forest.

The case is now in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Wyoming Sawmills is represented by the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which argues that banning roads and logging to protect the view from the medicine wheel violates separation of church and state.

The Lakewood, Colo., foundation's mission statement is to promote individual liberty, the right to own and use property, limited and ethical government and free enterprise.

Another firm, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, claims that the plan to protect the area around the medicine wheel does not violate the Constitution.

"The Medicine Wheel Historic Preservation Plan is a carefully crafted, constitutional exercise of the government's powers to accommodate religion by removing burdens to its practice while simultaneously accomplishing a variety of secular goals," the group said in a brief filed with the appellate court.

The fund says such accommodations of religious practice on government property are hardly unique to the Forest Service.

"The government retains ample authority to accommodate religion and the Constitution does not require that the purpose of every government-sanctioned activity be unrelated to religion," the brief states.

The Washington, D.C., organization describes itself as a bipartisan, interfaith public interest law firm whose goal is to protect free expression of all religious traditions.

The fund said it filed the brief on behalf of a wide variety of Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations, including General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.

The plan to preserve the medicine wheel and surrounding area was enacted in 1996. The plan allows unlimited ceremonial use by American Indians and allows them to request privacy for religious observations at the site for 12 or more days a year.

Wyoming Sawmills President Ernie Schmidt disputes the position of The Becket Fund. "What they are saying is not what the lawsuit is about. They obviously don't understand the lawsuit," Schmidt said.

Bighorn National Forest officials declined to comment Friday because the case is ongoing."

Copyright 2002, The Billings Gazette

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