Settlement reached in lawsuit over Native American religious items

Training program will include Farmington airport

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A settlement in federal court between the Native American Church of North America and the Transportation Security Administration will result in additional training for employees.

The settlement stems from a civil lawsuit filed last year against the government agency by the church and a former church president in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.

In the 15-page complaint, the former president alleged TSA agents at the San Antonio International Airport mishandled items used for ceremonies when he underwent additional screening in February 2015.

The complaint states the former president explained to agents the items cannot be handled by nonchurch members due to their spiritual significance, and he offered to hold the items for visual inspection by agents.

His request was denied, and the items were "roughly handled" and "forcefully stuffed" into a gourd box after being searched, according to court documents.

Based on the handling of the items, the church and former president asserted claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and under the Fourth Amendment and Fifth Amendment, court documents state.

A stipulation of dismissal and the settlement agreement were filed on Jan. 26 in U.S. District Court in Texas.

A TSA spokesperson declined to comment and referred questions to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The attorney's office in San Antonio did not respond to a request for comment.

Part of the settlement outlines actions for the TSA to follow when training employees to identify religious items used by Native Americans and methods for screening the items.

Ten airports located in New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Texas, North Dakota and South Dakota will receive the initial training before the program is expanded.

Among the facilities included on the list are the Four Corners Regional Airport and the Durango-LaPlata County Airport near Durango, Colorado.

In addition, the TSA will invite the Native American Church of North America or its designee or legal representative to join the agency's Multicultural Branch Coalition and participate in the coalition's annual conference within a month of the settlement.

If the church elects to join the Multicultural Branch Coalition, the TSA will invite the church to all future telephone conferences, meetings, conferences and other events open to coalition constitutes, according to the settlement.

The TSA also will produce a webinar to inform employees about Native American religious items and screening methods, and publish a fact sheet for posting on the agency's employee website.

Travelers will have access to the fact sheet after it is posted on the public website, according to the settlement.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at