Ninth Circuit Court to Hear Arguments Involving Future of Oak Flat

Photo courtesy of Apache Stronghold and Steve Pavey

During the week of March 20, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, California, will hear oral arguments in the case of Apache Stronghold v. United States to decide the fate of the sacred Oak Flat site in Arizona.

The site is on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2014, the government ordered a land exchange in which the land at Oak Flat would be given to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company.

Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit community organization dedicated to defending holy sites and freedom of religion, lost its initial appeal to the Ninth Circuit after a three-judge panel decided that the land-swap deal did not violate their free exercise of religion.

A majority of the Ninth Circuit’s 29 active judges voted in November 2022 to rehear the case “en banc” (with all the judges present) and will convene a special panel of 11 judges to decide whether the law allows the government to destroy sacred sites, according to Becket Law, the firm that represents Apache Stronghold in the case.

If the court doesn’t intervene, the government can turn over the use of the land at Oak Flat to Resolution Copper. 

On January 9, friend-of-the-court (amicus curiae) filings from many different religious organizations argued that the government’s position in this case would gut civil rights protections for people of all faiths. Organizations submitting these briefs include the Christian Legal Society, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Seventh-day Adventists, and the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team of the Religious Freedom Institute. Religious liberty law scholars as well as the Mennonite Church USA, the Sikh Coalition, the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, and Protect the 1st also provided their arguments.

The Association on American Indian Affairs and the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers argued that sacred places remain vitally important to the continued existence of tribal nations and that the proposed land exchange would lead to irreparable damage to Oak Flat and exacerbate existing and historical suppression of tribal cultures and religions, among other arguments.

“It is encouraging to see a diverse coalition of tribes, religious groups and scholars stand up in defense of the religious freedom of Western Apaches,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket.

“It is long past time for our nation to ensure that Native American religious practices receive the same respect and protection enjoyed by all other faiths.”

Youth from the O’odham Piipaash Alliance at Mesa’s Park of the Canals to begin a run to protect Oak Flat.

On February 5 at noon, the O’odham Piipaash Alliance gathered in Mesa at Park of the Canals to begin a run to protect Oak Flat.

“As we run through the Valley, we attempt to touch places that need prayer, to let our ancestors know we still remember these places and carry them in our prayer,” said Running Deer, a member of the alliance.

“We don’t want to lose Oak Flat or deal with the consequences Resolution Copper poses towards Indigenous communities.”

Apache Stronghold will hold the ninth annual Oak Flat March/Run from February 16 to 19, which includes a Tohono O’odham blessing on February 18.

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