Religious Views Fail to Avoid ESA Prosecution in Northern California
United States of America v. Moses Adeyemo, No. CR 03-40220 MJJ, 2008 WL 928546 (N.D. Cal. April 4, 2008).
Moses Adeyemo, a Nigerian, moved to dismiss an indictment for violations of the Endangered Species Act based upon the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("RFRA"). Leopard skins, he claimed, are an integral part of the Yoruba & Santaria belief systems. Although caught in a San Francisco Bay Area flea market in May 2001 by a U.S. Customs inspector with religious wall hangings that included leopard skins, Adeyemo claimed that he did not intend the skins for sale and they were intended for religious use and gifts. Upon review, the Court rejected the RFRA claims, and held that (1) The Government Has Demonstrated The Conservation Of Endangered Leopards Is A Compelling Government Interest; (2) The Government Has Demonstrated That A Permitting Scheme Without A Religious Exemption Is The Least Restrictive Means for Conserving And Protecting Endangered Leopards; (3) A Permitting Scheme With A Religious Exemption Would Not Allow The Government To Safeguard Its Compelling Interest In Protecting Endangered Leopards.
To begin with, the record reflects a link between the demand for leopard pelts used for religious purposes and the poaching of leopard skins to supply the demand. (Henry Decl. at 5.) Defendant has acknowledged there is a black-market for leopard skins in Nigeria, where the pelts sell for the equivalent of fifty U.S. dollars, that could be used to fill demand for religious purposes. (Garlick Investigative Report at 5.) Wildlife smuggling is prevalent in Nigeria because the border controls are lax and corruption in the country is endemic, despite the fact that Nigerian laws protect leopards. (Hunter Decl. at 6.) In any event, Defendant's argument fails to rebut the overall impact that a new religious exemption would have upon the leopard population. As discussed above, the Government has adequately demonstrated that the negative impact of a religious exemption extends beyond its use by those with sincere religious needs for leopard pelts, given enforcement difficulties and wildlife smuggling incentives.
Second, Defendant argues that the evidence submitted by the Government itself indicates that leopard populations have proven to be remarkably resilient to stresses on its population, and that permitting a religious exception would therefore not have a significant detrimental effect on the endangered leopards in northern Africa. The Court finds that this is not a reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence discussed above. However resilient the leopard may have proven to be, the cumulative import of the evidence in the record leads this Court to conclude that the northern African leopard is on the brink of extinction and that a religious exemption will only serve to assist in the hurried extinction of the leopards for multiple reasons.
The tension between the ESA and religious freedoms is not new, and Floridians may recall the 1987 prosecution (and acquittal in state court) of Seminole Chief James Billie who killed a Florida panther. See New York Times article (also noting dismissal of ESA federal charges). Notably, the claim of religious freedom is especially problematic here, because while one religion may believe an endangered species critical to its worship, others may believe just the opposite, rejecting any ritual involving a species. As the many links on this ESAblawg demonstrate, many religious believers have a substantial interest in protection of all creation, and allowing any one religion to claim an exemption would be, in effect, a rejection of the beliefs of the others. Rather than wading into this philosophically-treacherous arena, the legal system has wisely held that even sincere religious beliefs are irrelevant when those beliefs may themselves extirpate a species.
- Secular perspectives on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act