Protect The 1st has long supported the people of the Apache Stronghold as they’ve faced the gut-churning prospect that the government will allow a foreign mining consortium to transform their ancient site of worship into a giant crater as long as the Washington Mall and deep as two Washington Monuments.
Over the summer, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling that refused to protect Oak Flat, a large swath of the Tonto National Forest that the federal government recognized in a 19th century treaty as land held sacred by the Apache. The court ruled that the transfer of this land to a copper mining consortium resulting from a midnight deal in Congress did not substantially burden the First Amendment right to religious exercise of the Apache. Protect The 1st objected that the absolute destruction of a religious minority’s site of worship, the Apache’s equivalent of the Vatican or Temple Mount, was a “substantial burden” of the right of religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
In our view, the Ninth’s ruling would not only destroy the centerpiece of one religion, but would erode all religious protections guaranteed by RFRA. We weren’t alone in our thinking: Judge Marsha Berzon of the Ninth Circuit dissented, called her peers’ ruling “absurd,” “illogical,” “disingenuous,” and “incoherent.”
In August, the judges of the Ninth Circuit called for a vote to rehear the case en banc, in front of a full court of 11 judges. Such requests for a rehearing are exceedingly rare, limited to about one-half of one percent of cases. Legal observers welcomed the maneuver as a chance for dissenting judges to get their opinions on record as fodder for a bid for certification for oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court. Few legal observers gave Oak Flat a realistic chance for an actual rehearing.
The Apache people, undaunted, responded in a positive and hopeful way by organizing a caravan to San Francisco to urge the court to go ahead and reconsider its ruling.
On Thursday, the full court voted to grant Oak Flat a full en banc rehearing.
Gene Schaerr, PT1 general counsel, congratulated the Becket law firm for its strong representation of the Apache.
“This is a very encouraging day for religious liberty, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the rights of religious minorities in America,” Schaerr said. “It is remarkable that the Ninth Circuit itself sought this review of its decision.
“We congratulate the Ninth for this bold decision and look forward with enthusiasm to supporting the Apache’s case.”
With a coming razor-thin Republican majority in the House to replace a razor-thin Democratic majority, there is a risk that the nuances of religious liberty will be overlooked in the partisan crossfire on Capitol Hill.
Consider Oak Flat – the pending transaction in which land sacred to the Apache for centuries and recognized as such by the federal government in a 19th century treaty – will be transferred to a foreign mining consortium. Land that is to the Apache what the Vatican is to Catholics and the Temple Mount is to Jews is slated to be utterly destroyed. When the mining is done, Apache’s sacred land will be a crater as long as the Washington Mall and as deep as two Washington Monuments.
When debate concerning Oak Flat occurred in the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday, concerns about the rights of a minority religion, the free expression of religion under the First Amendment, and the protections of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act were barely mentioned. The mostly party-line vote was on a measure to press the Biden Administration to release internal memos on what Republicans see as its slow-walking of environmental and other approvals for the land transfer. The debate between the still-Democratic majority and the incipient Republican majority centered around the overall policies of the Biden Administration.
Wherever you come down in this debate, it is unfortunate that Oak Flat was chosen as the lead plaintiff for the case against Biden’s energy and environmental policies – at the expense of a focus on religious liberty.
The measure did not pass, but it will have a better chance when the Republicans take control in January. When they do, they should consider that destroying the prime place of worship for one minority religion will make it all that easier for government to discriminate against other religions. The weakening of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act will also make it easier to infringe on the religious freedom of Christians and evangelicals, Jews, and Muslims.
Members of the Apache Stronghold held a prayer ceremony Tuesday in front of the San Francisco Civic Center. While appealing to heaven, the Apache are also filing a request with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for a rehearing of their case to protect Oak Flat, long held to be a sacred and holy site, from being destroyed by a copper mine.
“Oak Flat is the place we have connected with our Creator for millennia, and the generations that follow us deserve to continue this holy tradition,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie Sr. of the Apache Stronghold. “We are glad the Ninth Circuit is going to take a closer look at this decision, and we hope it will do the right thing and protect our most sacred site at Oak Flat.”
Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, which represents Apache Stronghold, spoke about the court’s prior ruling and its subsequent decision to rehear the case en banc. This would allow the case to be reheard in front of the full 11-judge court.
“The panel’s opinion is, as Judge Berzon said, ‘illogical,’ ‘flawed,’ and ‘absurd,” Goodrich said. “The ruling conflicts with the decisions of other circuits and the Supreme Court, and it gets the law badly wrong. So we expect it to be corrected – if not by the full Ninth Circuit, then by the U.S. Supreme Court.”
The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit may be preparing to revisit its ruling that would destroy the sacred lands of the Apache.
Protect The 1st has long covered the plight of Apache, whose access to the Oak Flat area of the Tonto National Forest has been recognized as sacred to their religion by treaty with the U.S. government since the 19th century. A foreign mining consortium, Resolution Copper, has plans enabled by a midnight deal in Washington in which the company will mine copper in the Apache’s sacred site, to sell to China, and leave a gaping crater the length of the Washington Mall and the depth of two Washington Monuments.
In June, a divided Ninth Circuit held that the land swap could go forward, dismissing the rights of the Apache under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), as well as the First Amendment rights of these American citizens. Many legal observers were dumbfounded. How could the absolute destruction of a site that is the Vatican Hill or Temple Mount of the Apache not be an infringement of their religion – or even a substantial burden on their religious exercise?
At the time, Judge Marsha B. Berzon dissented from the majority, writing “it would be an exceedingly odd statute that recognized and provided remedies for government-created substantial burdens on religious exercise … when it directly prevents access to religious resources. Yet the majority reaches just that illogical interpretation of RFRA in this case, without acknowledging its incoherence.”
Now the court has asked the Apache Stronghold and its attorneys at the Becket Fund to file briefs outlining their positions on whether the case should be reheard.
“This is highly unusual,” said Gene Schaerr, general counsel of Protect The 1st. “What is most telling is that this en banc request was not prompted by the actions of the Apache and their attorneys. Though we can’t be certain, it appears one or the other Ninth Circuit judges took a good hard look at the Panel’s opinion and saw the holes.”