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State: Yup'ik fishermen didn't back up religious defense

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch
Loren Holmes photo

Alaska state prosecutors have filed a response against the challenge made by Alaska Native fishermen who were cited for illegally fishing last year, in acts of defiance that were described by many as civil disobedience, The Associated Press reports.

The challengers seeking to combine their cases were cited along with dozens of other Yup'ik people along the Kuskokwim River who intentionally fished in areas that were under closure due to horrible king salmon runs in 2012. The prosecutors' motion was filed in response to a motion that aimed to both combine 21 challenges into a single case and change the grounds on which the challenge would be made.

The accused fishermen contend that fishing for salmon is a religious and cultural right and it is protected by law. Civil rights attorney James Davis said to Alaska Dispatch in November 2012, after filing motions with the new grounds, that keeping a Yup'ik person from fishing is "like telling a Catholic they can have mass, but only with the Eucharist or the wine, not both."

Prosecutors maintain the state cases are not subject to federal religious guarantees and that defendants failed to support their religious protection arguments with precedent.

"They do not cite any cases which would support their position, leaving the state and the court to guess at their argument," prosecutors wrote. "In general, however, neutral laws -- those not targeted at religious practices -- which incidentally burden religious activities do not violate the First Amendment."

Three men from Bethel were found guilty of similar charges at trial and were fined $250, and about 30 others charged last summer for illegal fishing on the Kuskokwim River pleaded guilty and also paid $250 fines.

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