The Washington State Bar Association is considering a proposal that would curtail or eliminate blessings and spiritual invocations at Continuing Legal Education seminars and related events attended by legal professionals. It is common for such seminars that focus on Indigenous legal issues to be commenced with a blessing that gives thanks for the gathering and asking for wisdom and positive learning.
Within the WSBA itself, strong opposition to the proposal has been voiced by the members of the Indian Law Section, the members of which are legal professionals who work primarily in and for tribal communities. The Indian Law Section's letter to the WSBA Board of Governors can be accessed HERE.
A statement in support of the Indian Law Section's letter was sent by Greg Guedel, Chair of the American Bar Association's Committee on Native American Concerns:
Dear Members of the WSBA Board of Governors:
I am writing in support of the 20 June 2016 letter from the WSBA Indian Law Section opposing the proposed WSBA policy that would effectively eliminate blessings and spiritual invocations during CLEs and related events. I too believe that banning blessings is inappropriate and would be an over-step that is not warranted by a current or prospective problem. For comparative purposes, as Chair of the American Bar Association’s Committee on Native American Concerns for the past six years I note that our CLEs and other events related to Indigenous issues typically begin with a blessing, and I have observed no negative impacts on the programs nor any complaints from our members and attendees nationwide. Indeed, in my opinion commencing these events with a traditional blessing creates an environment of solemn focus that contributes positively to the learning environment.
Institutions of governance in our country have a long and tragic history of infringing upon the religious rights of Indigenous peoples. Banning Native American religious ceremonies, imprisoning spiritual leaders, and attempting to forcibly convert Native children to government-sanctioned faiths through boarding schools are among the litany of oppressions that have been reasonably described as cultural genocide. Although these destructive actions were clearly unconstitutional and were brutal violations of basic human rights, they were all taken “under color of law” by governmental institutions. Today, the legal profession needs to view preserving the religious rights of Indigenous peoples as a matter requiring broad and consistent remedial action. Taking away the ability to make a spiritual statement at a WSBA event would be a step in the wrong direction – preserving the right of Indigenous peoples to speak as the Constitution allows would be the correct step.
I greatly appreciate your consideration of these issues, and am grateful for your service to our profession and community.
W. Gregory Guedel, Ph.D., J.D.
Chair, Native American Legal Services