While Bethel Judge, Bruce Ward, researches the testimony he heard in the Kuskokwim fishermen trial last week, the two sides of the case disagree about what happened in court.
Dozens of fishermen were cited for fishing for King salmon when the river was closed to the species last summer. Nearly two dozen pled not guilty in court and have been fighting it ever since. The trial began last week and one side is already touting a concession: The defense says that the State agrees that Yup’ik subsistence practices should be protected like other religions.
In a press release, Defense attorney, James Davis Jr. with the Northern Justice Project, writes that the state conceded the religious point: “that Yupik subsistence practices were so profoundly connected to long standing Yupik cultural and spiritual beliefs, they are entitled to the same Free Exercise protections as is any other more orthodox religions, such as Christianity or Mormonism.”
However, the state’s attorney says they have not conceded anything in the case. In an e-mail, Assistant District Attorney, Laura Fox, says that the state agrees that all religions are entitled to the same free exercise protections but the court has not heard any evidence about the individual defendants’ religious beliefs and reasons for violating the closure orders. So, Fox wrote, “the state has not conceded that these defendants are entitled to free exercise protections.”
Additionally, Fox wrote, “the state’s position is that even if these defendants can demonstrate that they were fishing for religious reasons, other compelling state interests (such as protecting the salmon population) prevent the state from exempting them from fishing regulations.”
The trial is scheduled to resume in Bethel May 20.