Court Rules Accommodations at Devils Tower are Constitutional
April 3, 1998

Casper, WY - Judge William F. Downes of the U.S. District Court in Wyoming ruled today that the National Park Service's climbing management plan at Devils Tower National Monument is constitutional. This plan accommodates Indian religious worship at Devils Tower by asking rock climbers not to scale the butte in June, a month when Indians from over twenty different tribes gather there to conduct sacred religious ceremonies.

Judge Downes' ruling dismissed a lawsuit filed by several rock climbers who argued that the Park Service's plan violates the First Amendment's prohibition against government sponsorship of religion. In his decision, Judge Downes ruled that "the govenment may (and sometimes must) accommodate religiouss practices and ..... it may do so without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment."

The Park Service's plan discourages, but does not prohibit, rock climbing during June. According to Judge Downes, this "voluntary climbing ban" is "a policy that has been carefully crafted to balance the competing needs of individuals using Devils Tower National Monument while, at the same time, obeying the adicts of the Constitution."

Judge Upholds All Aspects of Park Service's Plans

Judge Downes upheld all aspects of the park Service's program, stating that "the purposes underlying the ban are really to remove barriers to religious worship occasioned by public ownership of the Tower.... The government is merely enabling Native Americans to worship in a more peaceful setting. In doing so, the government has no involvement in the manner of worship that takes place, but only provides an atmosphere more conducive to worship."

Steve Gunn, an attorney with the Indian Law Resource Center in Washington, D.C., who is representing Indian parties in the case, agrees. "The government is not sponsoring or funding Indian ceremonies at Devils Tower. Nor is it organizing the ceremonies or encouraging bystanders to participate in them. It is simply taking steps to insure that Indian worshippers are left alone to perform their ceremonies in solitude. We are very pleased with Judge Downes' ruling."

The Park Service implemented the voluntary climbing ban in 1995, after nearly two years of consultation with American Indians, rock climbers, environmentalists, and others. It did so to balance the competing interests of Indians and rock climbers, and to encourage tolerance and respect for Indian religious practices. To promote compliance with the ban, the Park Service posted a sign at the base of the Tower asking visitors to stay on the trail (and away from Indians conducting ceremonies at off-trail locations) and developed a cross-cultural education program which offers imformation to visitors about the historical and cultural significance of the Tower to American Indians.

Most Climbers Support and Honor the Plan

Most rock climbers have shown respect for the Indian religious practitioners and have supported the Park Service's program. The Access Fund, a national climbing organization, has offically endorsed the program and the Park Service reports that since 1995, rock climbing during June has fallen by over 80%.

Devils Tower Is Vital to Indian Religion and Culture

For Arvol Looking Horse, a member and spiritual leader of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, this ruling is a significant victory. "Once again, we can worship in our traditional way and practice our traditonal culture without interference at this sacred site."

Devils Tower is a sacred site and a vital cultural resource for Indians from over twenty Plains tribes. For centuries, Indians have performed religious and cultural ceremonies there, including the Sun Dance, sweat lodge rites, vision quests, and prayer offerings. Howerver, in recent years, growing numbers of visitors and rock climbers have dissrupted these Indian ceremonies. According to Looking Horse, "Climbers make lots of noise and come near our people when they are praying. By doing this, they distrub our efforts to obtain spiritual guidance. When climbers hammer objects into the butte, it is like they are pounding stakes into our bodies."

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe intervened in the lawsuit to defend the Park Service's accommodations at "He Hota Paha," or Grey Horn Butte, the Lakota name given to Devils Tower hundreds of years ago. The Tribe is represented by the Indian Law Resource Center and attorneys in the Tribe's Legal Department.

Ruling Upholds American Tradition of Religious Tolerance

"There is a long and principled tradition in this country of accommodation religious practices on government lands," says Gunn. At Arlington National Cemetery, a site described by the federal government as "our nation's most sacred shrine," recreational activities that would interfere with religious burial or memorial services are strictly prohibited. And in the countless national parks, the Park Service owns or leases churches and other religious properties and prohibits activities that would conflict with religious services.

"Time and again, the Supreme Corut has said that the government 'follows the best of our traditions' when it 'respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates... their spiritual needs,'" says Gunn. "These American traditions must be upheld for our courntry's first Americans, too."

Email Campaign Site

Cumulative Site Index

This page is administered by JS Dill.

Please provide an opinion regarding this site...