By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - The U.S. government is allowed to bar non-Native Americans from using eagle feathers for religious purposes, even for rituals that imitate or borrow from Indian culture, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Native Americans alone should benefit from a special exemption carved out for government-recognized Indian tribes in a federal law that generally prohibits possession of eagle feathers.
The opinion reversed a lower court that sided with a man in Utah who was not member of a registered Indian tribe and claimed that he been wrongfully prosecuted for incorporating eagle feathers into his own religious rituals.
"By allowing only members of federally recognized tribes an essential though otherwise prohibited commodity (eagle feathers and parts), the United States ensures that those tribes are able to continue to practice their traditional culture to the greatest extent possible," wrote a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit.
The appeals court noted it had to "navigate dangerous terrain ... to protect key aspects of our natural heritage and preserve the culture of Native American tribes" with allowing the free practice of religion.
The ruling stemmed from a Utah criminal case involving Samuel Ray Wilgus, who was found with dozens of bald eagle and golden eagle feathers in his vehicle when he was pulled over by Utah police in 1998.
Wilgus, who is not an enrolled member of an Indian tribe recognized by the federal government, was convicted of illegally possessing the feathers.
Possessing eagle parts or feathers is a federal offense under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, unless they are used for approved scientific purposes or for ceremonial use by federally recognized Native American tribes, who believe the bird is sacred.
Wilgus appealed, saying that the statute conflicted with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law that prohibits the federal government from "substantially burdening religious freedom" of its citizens.
Wilgus said he used the feathers as part of his own religion that embraces many Native American symbols.
The Denver-based appellate court said in its opinion that while it did not doubt the sincerity of Wilgus's religious beliefs, American Indians share a "unique and constitutionally protected relationship" with the federal government.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Bohan)