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Spiritual ceremony not immune to local environmental agency

If you were planning on getting in touch with your spiritual well-being in 2015, you may want to check with your local government first.

Earlier this year, a local California environmental agency attempted to relinquish a Native American group’s First Amendment rights to Small Claims Court for their refusal to pay a fine for a ceremony they insisted was a constitutional, religious right.

It all started on New Year’s Day in 2012, a “no burn day.” Members of Seven Circles, a group that supports Native American Indigenous People’s spiritual practices, held a traditional sweat lodge ritual called the Inipi Ceremony at their Forest Knolls Lodge.  When neighbors reported their ceremonial burn to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), the individual who authorized the burn was cited with a “violation of burning a recreational fire on a spare the air day” and a $1,000 fine.

The BAAQMD regulations define recreational burns as:

5-224  Recreational Fires: A fire used for social, cultural or other activities including, but not limited to, campfires, bonfires, ceremonial fires, handwarming fires, raku or pit pottery curing fires, or fires conducted as part of an unusual event such as fire walking provided only clean dry wood and fire starter is used, and the activity is not part of a business for gainful occupation.

The stated mission of the public agency BAAQMD is “to protect and improve public health, air quality, and the global climate.”

Seven Circles argued to the BAAQMD that their traditional New Year’s Day fire was part of a religious ceremony that should be covered by the First Amendment and the Religious Freedoms Restoration Act of 1993 and not simply the “recreational” burn that they were cited for.

Several  members of Seven Circles attended an April 2013 BAAQMD board meeting where they presented an Amicus Brief  regarding ceremonial fires filed in Oxnard in 2006 which was filed on behalf of their sister organization Decedents of the Earth, in an attempt to show that their burn qualified for a religious exemption.

The BAAQMD and Seven Circles were not able to work out a solution for the fine.  When asked for a statement regarding the reason a resolution was not reached at the board meeting or any time after, as of today, the BAAQMD has not provided one.

As a result, the $1,000 fine was  brought to Marin County Small Claims court by the BAAQMD in early 2014. Members of Seven Circles argued to the Court that Small Claims was not the proper venue to defend a constitutional issue. The Court agreed, and moved the hearing to a higher court.

With the change of venue, however, came a change of stakes, as Seven Circles, their landlord, and their representative were summoned to Civil Court in a lawsuit by “The People of the State of California, by and through the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.” Each became subject to pay a settlement of $150,000 —totaling $450,000.

To be clear, a $1,000 fine ballooned into a possible $450,000 settlement. Note who exactly brought them to court: “The People of the State of California by and through the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.” This means that the regulations and definitions that the agency makes and enforces should be understood as “what is in the best interest of California.”

Seven Circles was not defending itself against the BAAQMD, they were defending itself against the state of California.

The members of Seven Circles simply did not have the funding or legal assistance necessary to take on the state over a constitutional issue. The two individuals who could each be subject to the $150,000 settlement could not afford to lose such a court battle.

Under the pressure of massive fines, Seven Circles and its members gave into the BAAQMD and agreed to pay a $2,000 fine if they agreed to follow the agency’s regulations—which include refraining from participating in the religious ceremony of Inipi on burn days.

The Sacramento Air Quality Management District, the Orange County/ LA South Coast Air Quality Management District, and several other California air quality management agencies have exemptions for religious ceremonial burns.

Featured image from Shutterstock

Categories: Courts & Law, Energy & Environment, Government Transparency, Regulation, Waste, Fraud and Abuse

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