Tree Worship

If the government protects a forest, is it a religious act? The courts will soon decide.

| Fri Jan. 21, 2000 4:00 AM EST

Environmentalism is a religion!

At least, so say the Minnesota loggers who are suing the US Forest Service and two environmental groups on the grounds that their eco-minded actions violated the separation of church and state.

According to the complaint filed by the loggers last October, the activist groups influenced the Forest Service by promoting their "religion of Deep Ecology" in order to stall logging permit approvals. The delay, they argue, was inspired by the Deep Ecology premise that nature is sacred and therefore should be preserved -- a clear case of religion determining public policy.

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The loggers want nearly $600,000 in damages. More notably, they want an injunction that would keep the two environmental groups, New Mexico's Forest Guardians and Minnesota's Superior Wilderness Action Network (SWAN), from preaching their so-called religous beliefs in order to influence USFS policy. A Minnesota judge will decide whether or not to let the case proceed in the coming weeks. If it is thrown out, the loggers plan to appeal.

On the surface, this case looks like what environmental lawyers call a SLAPP suit -- Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation -- whose intent is not to win, but to divert nonprofit groups' resources from activism to legal defense. But the loggers insist their goal is loftier than temporary financial paralysis: They aim to silence activists nationwide. If they can prove that religion inspired Forest Service decisions in this case, they say, their ruling could apply to future cases.

"If we can make this point, it applies to the whole environmental movement," says Stephen Young, the attorney representing the loggers. The point: "Don't have the government enforce your beliefs."

"If they're claiming we worship green," retorts Ray Fenner, director of SWAN, "then they worship a different kind of green -- the one with George Washington on it."

As wacko as the loggers' accusation may seem, similar cases have held up in court in recent years. Developers in several Native American land disputes have argued successfully that the protection of "sacred" natural areas is based on religious belief, not scientific concern for the environment. And in May, a New York district judge ruled to suppress a public school's Earth Day celebration, in part because the children's songs and poems to Mother Earth were interpreted as incantations to a deity-like figure.

While the question of whether or not Deep Ecology is a religion has become the focus of the debate, the greater issue is that the loggers are attempting to suppress the activists' right to speak, says SWAN attorney Tom Buchele of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago.

Even if the courts deem Deep Ecology a religion, Buchele says, silencing its followers would violate their freedom of speech. "Churches have participated in public policy debates in this country since the very beginning," he says. "I don't think these groups should be muzzled."

But Young -- who made an unsuccessful run for Senate in 1996 and whose current political goal is to unify Pat Buchanan and Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura to form a strong conservative alliance -- insists that a little bit of muzzling would do the environmental movement some good.

"We need a scientific approach to the management of forests," he says. "It's no great harm done to the human race and the planet if we ask environmentalists to come back to 'shallow ecology.'"