Protect The First Foundation Files Brief Before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Supporting Apache Stronghold in Oak Flat Case
The Protect the First Foundation joined the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty in an amicus brief filed today in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to prevent the destruction of the sacred land of the Apache Stronghold of Arizona, “because the religious liberties of all rise and fall together.”
“This is a critical case for all people and communities of faith because it raises a fundamental question of what constitutes a ‘substantial burden’ on the ‘exercise of religion’ under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)” the brief states.
A district court had previously found that, to the Western Apache, Oak Flat is “a ‘direct corridor’ to the Creator’s Spirit.” The Oak Flat parcel of the Tonto National Forest has for centuries been such a sacred place to the Apache. If a government-approved transaction is allowed, Oak Flat will be turned over to a foreign mining consortium, Resolution Copper, to be transformed into a crater as long as the Washington Mall and as deep as two Washington Monuments.
A 2-1 split on a three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit had ruled in June against the Apache, finding that the destruction of Oak Flat would not amount to a “substantial burden” on the practice of religion under RFRA. In September, however, the court made the rare move to rehear the case before an en banc hearing – meaning that it will be before 11 randomly selected Ninth Circuit judges. This happens in fewer than 0.5 percent of cases.
“[T]he panel erroneously concluded that the Apache will not be ‘substantially burdened’ as defined by RFRA,” Protect the First Foundation’s brief states. “Since RFRA does not define ‘substantial burden,’ this Court should follow the Supreme Court’s guidance and apply the ordinary or natural meaning of that term.” The brief also quotes Justice Neil Gorsuch from his days as a judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that whenever the government “prevents the plaintiff from participating in [a religious] activity,” and gives the plaintiff no “degree of choice in the matter,” that action “easily” imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise.
The brief demonstrates that the prior ruling erred in narrowly applying a previous Ninth Circuit case, Navajo Nation v. U.S. Forest Service, despite it having more expansive permissible readings. “But, if true that Navajo Nation required the result reached here, then this Court should overturn it because it would mean Navajo Nation has adopted an erroneous and unduly narrow understanding of what a substantial burden is – an understanding that cannot be squared with the text or purpose of RFRA or Supreme Court precedent.”
The appellants also noted that the panel defended its conclusion on the grounds that the Supreme Court in Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery (1988) found no valid free exercise claim. But that case preceded the passage of RFRA and its protections by decades. Moreover, in Lyng, the Court allowed the development of government land around religious sites. It did not propose to destroy them.
“It follows that a destroyed Oak Flat would devastate the Western Apache much like an obliterated Vatican for Catholics, a demolished Kaaba (in Mecca) for Muslims, or a dismantled temple for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” the brief declares. “But the burden imposed on the Western Apache would be worse still than even the destruction of religious buildings, because their religion is rooted in the land itself, not just buildings that have been built there.”
The brief quoted a district court: “Resolution Copper’s planned mining activity on the land will close off a portal to the Creator forever and will completely devastate the Western Apache’s spiritual lifeblood.”
PT1st will continue to monitor this case as it is decided by the Ninth Circuit.