Instead of enforcing their new regulation against Rainbow gatherings like any other rule, the U.S. Forest Service is asking you to declare it constitutionally valid in civil court. Their 35-page preamble to the final rule (Fed. Reg. 8/30/95) answered the objections of 600 public-comment letters opposing their proposed amendments to 36 CFR 251 and 261. Evidently they still aren't sure of their case.
I can see why. The new regulation requires a signed permit for gatherings of over 75 `participants or spectators' in a National Forest. It fails to specify how close a given 76 people must be standing or sitting or camping to qualify, and for how long.
The ten articles of the Bill of Rights, however, define our rights as individual citizens. The First Amendment freedoms of speech, religion, the press, etc. are individual rights. Each of us born or naturalized in the U.S. is therefore individually guaranteed the right to `peaceably assemble.' So which 75 of the 76 are citizens legally engaged in exercising their constitutional rights, and which one is a criminal disregarder of law and order?
The Regulators claim standing legal precedents allow them to control the `time, place and manner' of constitutionally protected activities in National Forests. `Manner' seems to be a term chosen specifically for its vagueness, but it doesnŐt quite stretch to limiting the number of citizens who have rights.
The NFS can point to cases of unpeaceable assembly at Rainbow gatherings. True, some gathering attendees have abused the right to gather. But as Judge W.W. Justice concluded in U.S. v. Rainbow Family (Texas 1988), existing regulations already provide jurisdiction for removing individuals who abuse the right to gather from the woods. Arrests at Rainbow gatherings come nowhere near justifying the millions of tax dollars spent to harass and intimidate the law-abiding majority who attend.
The First Amendment also protects our individual freedom of religion. For me, Your Honor, that means gathering. I have never experienced anything that spoke so deeply to my spirit as a Rainbow gathering. Praying in a circle on the Solstices and Equinoxes is my personal religion; the woods are the most sacred church I could wish for. In this I stand firmly within the most ancient as well as recent religious traditions.
But that's just one person's expression. Not everyone at the gathering attends prayer circles; a few can be found attending a beer-party in the parking lot instead. It is the act of gathering as One, in spite of our spectrum of individual differences, that makes it `Rainbow.'
In that light, our 25-year tradition is that no one speaks for the Family as a Whole except the consensus of a circle where every opinion is represented that wants to be. Except when passing on such a consensus, individual focalizers like myself speak only on our own behalf. Because we're not a militia or a cult, but free citizens coming together at an agreed-upon time and place, a consensus of Council has no governing authority, only a moral influence. This is how tribal council historically worked: as an agreement among free people.
Insisting on a signed permit requires us in effect to appoint a leader: someone who can be held responsible. Yet no one can or should take on legal liability for actions he or she cannot control. This is how tribal councils historically have been undermined.
Due to the diversity it represents, a Rainbow Council's areas of consensus are limited to the gathering itself- to be exact, its time, place and manner. The main communal concerns are when and where, but how frequently requires the Council's attention as well: like last year in New Mexico, when the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture set up Food Stamp offices at the gathering as bait for bad press, and a Rainbow Family Tribal Council consensus urged people not to sign up.
By trying to appoint us leaders, and then claiming the right to regulate the time, place and manner of our gatherings, the NFS is not only intruding on our basic right to assemble but also trampling over our central expression of spiritual unity, the Council.
Your Honor, thousands of good people depend on the Annual Rainbow Gathering and a growing number of regional gatherings for spiritual sustenance every year. I've seen much spiritual growth and character formation over my 15 years of gatherings. To me, this is the long-term value of going to the woods together: something we owe to our youngers, but have largely forgotten in the rush to plug them into jobs and careers. Provided that we always clean it up, I can conceive of no better place to explore and celebrate our relationship to Creator and Creation than our public forests. And many more instances of peaceful and responsible gathering can be shown than the NFS wants you to see.
The NFS, for its part, has been caught lately selling our timber to foreign corporations at a loss. I believe one aim of this regulation is to keep witnesses out of the remote areas where the real crimes against the National Forests go on daily at taxpayer expense.
Yet for 25 years the Rangers in the field have worked with our Councils, sometimes grudgingly, often with respect, to keep our gatherings safe and healthy. We have often worked together to protect endangered species, archeological sites, the goodwill of the community. While the Regulators in Washington search out ever more abstruse terms to eliminate us from `their' woods, many of these Rangers have come to respect us over the years, and have earned our respect.
Short of forfeiting my First Amendment rights, I yearn for some harmonious resolution that would allow Solstice and Equinox circles to continue forever in the public forests. Like so many Americans, I nurse the dream of a government that is on my side. I don't speak for anyone but myself; I would never put my name on a permit as someone else's leader. But I for one would be willing to work with the Rangers in my region, within a cooperative, non-adversarial consensus process, in any area where our circle's past record has not earned their trust.
Why not offer such a compromise in the Osceola case? One or two Rangers could be assigned to the Council that will prepare for next year's Florida winter gathering. Working together as equal partners could bring out the best in everyone- provided you take steps to ensure the partnership is truly equal.
Your Honor, we are American citizens who gather for peace and healing. This regulation is the latest weapon in a 25-year low intensity war against us. Holding the hypothetical class of all Rainbow gathering attendees hostage for the abuses of a few is discriminatory; denying my right to gather punishes me for the misdemeanors of others. Writing it into the Federal Code of Bureaucracy extends the punishment to all citizens- the very taxpayers who pay the mounting bill for its enforcement. As a gesture of peace, please declare it unconstitutional. Your Honor, I rest my case.