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Court hearing Fighting Sioux case March 15

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BISMARCK, N.D. — Blocking a vote on the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux sports nickname would be an affront to the spiritual beliefs of two Sioux tribes, a state Supreme Court filing by supporters of the nickname asserts.

On Wednesday, the high court scheduled arguments in the Board of Higher Education's lawsuit over the nickname for March 15. The suit asks the Supreme Court to stop a June vote on a law that directs the university to continue using "Fighting Sioux" and a logo with the profile of an American Indian warrior.

The legal fight includes the board, Secretary of State Al Jaeger, the North Dakota Legislature and the Committee for Understanding and Respect, which represents the nickname's supporters.

Nickname advocates have filed petitions to put the law to a public vote in June. The Board of Higher Education is asking the Supreme Court to block the vote and declare that the law illegally weakens the board's power to manage North Dakota's system of 11 public colleges.

The NCAA considers the nickname offensive, and the university has been attempting to retire it. When UND's women's hockey team makes its first appearance in the NCAA playoffs against Minnesota on Saturday, the squad will wear jerseys without the nickname or the logo.

Reed Soderstrom, an attorney for the nickname's supporters, argued in a court filing that the Supreme Court should not rule until a vote is held. If the law is affirmed, the Board of Higher Education may resume its arguments about whether it is unconstitutional, he said in his brief.

The lawsuit "is speculative and not ripe for this court to assert its jurisdiction," Soderstrom wrote. "The (Board of Higher Education) has taken a 'what-if' scenario and brought it before the court."

Soderstrom's filing says the university's right to use the Fighting Sioux nickname was given by North Dakota's Standing Rock and Spirit Lake tribes in a 1969 religious ceremony, during which then-university president George Starcher was given an Indian headdress.

The filing includes a sworn statement by Christopher Buddy Alberts, 73, who is identified as a Spirit Lake Sioux tribal elder. The statement says the naming ceremony had "deep spiritual implications and consequences" and "cannot be taken away, as a matter of our Sioux religion and tradition."

Soderstrom argues that to drop the nickname would violate the tribes' right to religious freedom, as spelled out in the North Dakota Constitution.

"To dismiss the sacred ceremony of 1969 is to dismiss the Sioux people, and to dismiss the tradition and ceremonies of the Sioux people," Soderstrom wrote.

The secretary of state's court filing, written by Fargo attorneys Sarah Andrews Herman and Matthew Kipp, says Jaeger's authority over the referendum petition is limited to determining whether it was put together properly and whether it has enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

"The limited nature of the secretary of state's role does not include the authority to review the substance or merits of the measure," the attorneys wrote. The Board of Higher Education, they said, "attacks the substance of the measure by arguing that it is unconstitutional. The Secretary of State cannot determine constitutionality."

The Legislature has not filed its legal brief in the case. It is due Friday.