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Airport agents to get training after Native church's lawsuit

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A wooden box carried an eagle feather and bone whistle, a gourd rattle and a feather fan — items that carry spiritual energy and are used in Native American religious ceremonies.

The man holding the box asked security agents at the San Antonio International Airport to allow him to display the items so their energy wouldn't be polluted. The agents declined, roughly handling the items and shoving them back in the box, former Native American Church of North America President Sandor Iron Rope alleged.

His lawsuit against the Transportation Security Administration recently was settled, with neither side acknowledging fault and the agency agreeing to better educate its employees about Native American religious items at more than a dozen airports nationwide.

"There was a policy in place designed to provide some protection for us, but they don't have training," Iron Rope said Wednesday. "Not everybody is familiar with the policies."

The TSA did not respond to messages seeking comment this week.

The Native American Church has multiple chapters around the country and an estimated 250,000 members. The church that formed in 1918 blends Native American beliefs and Christianity but doesn't have formal buildings. Instead, its members meet in tipis for lengthy ceremonies and use peyote as a sacrament.

Its most visible legal battles have been over peyote, a hallucinogenic that only grows naturally in the United States in southern Texas. States had varied laws on Native Americans' use of the cactus until the early 1990s, when a federal law allowed Native Americans who are part of the church to possess peyote.

For anyone else, it's illegal, in the same category as heroin and cocaine. Membership cards cite the federal law and another that allows Native Americans to possess migratory birds.

One of Iron Rope's attorneys, Forrest Tahdooahnippah, said church members have had enough bad experiences to discourage them from air travel. He said Iron Rope had no indication agents believed his ceremonial items were dangerous.

"That's part of the reason we felt there should have been a lawsuit in the first place," he said. "Screening of items should be reserved for things TSA has a legitimate suspicion are going to be a danger to traveler safety."

Passengers can do their part by alerting the TSA at least 72 hours in advance to carry-on items that need additional screening and by clearly communicating beliefs, said Richard Bloom, director of terrorism, intelligence, and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.

Security agents cannot be trained in all religions, but he said they can improve on dealing with the unknown.

"A little bit of sensitivity and respect and really being open to the unique needs of a religious individual can go a long way toward negotiating something that works for the individual and for the TSA," Bloom said.

Not all religious items would be allowed on planes with passengers, however.

The TSA prohibits religious knives like the kirpan. Sikhs who carry them do not view them as weapons or accessories but as extensions of their being and their belief that they are protectors of the weak.

The Sikh Coalition, a civil rights organization, has issued travel guidelines alerting the community that kirpans can be in checked baggage only, and the faithful generally adhere. But the coalition has represented at least one Sikh man in a case where he was charged for carry kirpans through airport security. The case eventually was dropped.

As part of the settlement with the Native American Church of North America, the TSA and the plaintiffs will collaborate on a webinar that will be available to agents who work with passengers well ahead of their flights to move items through security.

Those webinars will be shown to TSA employees in Albuquerque and Farmington, N.M.; Durango, Colo.; Great Falls, Mont.; Minot, N.D.; Rapid City and Sioux Falls, S.D.; and San Antonio, Laredo and McAllen, Texas.

Certain TSA employees in St. Paul, Minn.; Omaha, Neb.; Oklahoma City; Phoenix; and Denver will have to review guidelines for screening Native American religious items.

A fact sheet for travelers with Native American religious items will be published in the next three months, and the church will be able to advise and make recommendations to the TSA.

"We're hopeful we'll have a place at the table now so that any future concerns will be addressed quicker and more efficiently than through a lawsuit," Tahdooahnippah said.


North Dakota US Senate candidate scrubs social media posts

BISMARCK, N.D. | A GOP candidate for North Dakota's U.S. Senate seat acknowledged Thursday he deleted more than 100 social media posts after entering the race, including one that called anti-Israel protesters "a bunch of Arabs."

Gary Emineth, 59, also retweeted an image calling for "no more mosques in America" and shared a Facebook post that compared people on food stamps to animals, CNN reported. The network posted frame-grabs of Emineth's posts.

Emineth told The Associated Press he doesn't apologize for them. He said some of the posts were "sarcastic" and were done by him as a "frustrated American citizen."

A post referring to President Obama as a "POS" was a typo, Emineth said, and was meant to be "POTUS," which stands for the President of the United States. Emineth defends referring to the former president in posts as a "socialist, because he is."

He began deleting the posts after announcing he would run on Jan. 31, figuring "some people would get wound up over them."

Emineth, a businessman and former North Dakota GOP chairman, is one of two Republicans hoping to face Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in November. Republican state Sen. Tom Campbell is the other.

"I just wanted to focus on Heidi Heitkamp and the race," Emineth said. "This is all about the left trying to create controversy."

Emineth said he might repost them because they might help him win in North Dakota, where President Donald Trump carried the state by 36 points in 2016 and remains popular.

"It would probably be to my advantage to keep them up," he said. "I'll probably offend a number of other people before I'm done, too."

State Sen. Kelly Armstrong, who heads the North Dakota GOP, said he didn't know if the Emineth's posts "help him or hurt him."

"Obviously, to varying degrees, they are bad and he shouldn't have done them," Armstrong said.


Governors say Interior Department shift didn't include them

DENVER | A bipartisan group of 19 Western governors said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke did not consult with them about major plans for reorganizing the agency, and have asked him to delay implementing the proposal until he speaks with them.

The Feb. 1 letter from the Western Governors Association said the group had asked Zinke in April 2017 to be consulted on any reshuffling of the department, which wields considerable authority over public lands in the West.

They said last week that Zinke has still not sought the views of its members, who represent every state in the western half of the nation, from Texas to Hawaii.

Zinke, who was a Republican congressman from Montana, said last month he wants to reorganize the department's regions along river basins and other natural boundaries instead of state lines. The plan also calls for all of the department's component agencies, such as the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, to use the same set of regional boundaries.

Association spokesman Joe Rassenfoss said Thursday the group had not received a response from Zinke.

Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said the governors "are welcome to share their ideas and opinions with the secretary or their staff are also encouraged to reach out to the secretary's staff."

That did not satisfy the association.

"Western governors expect to be treated as the chief executives of a sovereign level of government, not as stakeholders," Jim Ogsbury, executive director of the group, said Thursday in an email to The Associated Press. He said the governors want to be "authentic partners" in the process.

Zinke told the Washington Post last month that many issues the Interior Department deals with, such as a single species of fish, follow natural boundaries, not political ones.

The Interior Department oversees nearly 700,000 square miles through four of its major component agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Reclamation.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is also part of the Interior Department, has some responsibilities for another 103,000 square miles of Native American land.

The Western Governors Association sent Zinke 10 questions about the reorganization plan, including why the changes were even necessary, and why all the department's units couldn't have the same regions based on state boundaries.

The governors pointed out that under Zinke's plan, some states would be divided among two or three of the new regions. They asked how that would affect the department's ability to coordinate with states.

The association's letter was signed by its chairman, South Dakota Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard, and its vice chairman, Hawaii Democrat David Ige. The association includes 12 GOP governors, six Democrats and one independent.