ARIZONA NEWS

Apaches tell court copper mine would harm sacred sites

Mar 21, 2023, 11:04 AM | Updated: 3:30 pm

PHOENIX (AP) — A Native American group that’s trying to stop an effort to build one of the largest copper mines in the United States told a full federal appeals court panel Tuesday that the project would prevent Apaches from exercising their religion by destroying land they consider sacred.

U.S. federal government plans for a land swap that will allow Resolution Copper to build the mine will destroy the land in eastern Arizona known as Oak Flat, “barring the Apaches from ever accessing it again and ending their core religious practices forever,” said attorney Luke Goodrich, arguing for the group Apache Stronghold.

“We asked the court today to recognize the obvious — that when the government destroys a sacred site, religious liberty law has something to say about it,” Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at the nonprofit legal institution Becket Law, said in a prepared statement distributed after the hearing in Pasadena, California. “A win for Apache Stronghold will be a win for people of all faiths.”

The Apache group is seeking to halt the land swap while the case plays out in court. The panel of 11 judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to issue a decision in the next few months.

Apache Stronghold sued the U.S. government under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to protect the place tribal members call Chi’chil Bildagoteel, an area dotted with ancient oak groves and traditional plants the Apaches consider essential to their religion.

An environmental impact survey for the project has been pulled back while the U.S. Department of Agriculture has consulted for months with Native American tribes and others about their concerns.

But U.S. government attorney Joan Pepin told the judge Tuesday that the Forest Service expected the environmental analysis could be republished as early as this spring, setting in motion the land swap, which would have to be completed within 60 days.

Pepin argued that the act of Congress that approved the exchange giving the Oak Flat to Resolution Copper land supersedes the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prevents government agencies from placing a “substantial burden” on the practice of religion.

The land transfer was a last-minute provision included in a must-pass defense bill in 2014. The swap would give the mining company 3.75 square miles (9.71 square kilometers) of national forest land in exchange for eight parcels it owns in other parts of Arizona.

Resolution Copper, a joint venture of global mining firms Rio Tinto and BHP, has said it continues to address concerns raised about the project, but noted there is significant local support for the mine. Rio Tinto has headquarters in Australia and the U.K, while BHP is based in Australia.

It says the project has the potential to supply enough copper to meet up to one-quarter of U.S. demand, adding up to $1 billion a year to Arizona’s economy and creating thousands of local jobs.

A smaller 9th Circuit panel previously ruled 2-1 that the federal government could give the Oak Flat land to the mining company for the project. The court later agreed to let the larger panel hear the case.

Apache Stronghold members traveled from Arizona for the hearing, stopping at cities along the way to draw attention to the case. They gathered Monday at a community arts center in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

“Oak Flat is where my people have come to connect with our Creator for millennia, and we have the right to continue that sacred tradition,” Wendsler Nosie Sr. of Apache Stronghold said in a statement released after the hearing. “Today we stood up in court for that right, determined to stop those who think that our place of worship can be treated differently simply because it lacks four walls and a steeple.”

The Poor People’s Campaign, environmental groups and the National Congress of American Indians are among many groups backing Apache Stronghold’s fight.

The Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Clinic filed a “friend of the court” brief and Stephanie Barclay, director of Notre Dame’s Religious Liberty Initiative, participated in oral arguments.

The Religious Liberty Clinic at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, also submitted a brief.

St. Thomas law professor Thomas Berg called it the most important Native American religious liberty case in 15 years.

“It could change the legal test used throughout the Ninth Circuit, which likely has far more sacred sites on federal land than any other part of the country,” Berg said in a written statement.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Pass it along to the KTAR News team here.

Arizona News

File photo of Phoenix Police cruiser with lights on at night...

KTAR.com

Collision leaves 1 dead, another seriously injured in north Phoenix

Police is investigating a collision that killed one adult man and seriously injured another in north Phoenix.

8 hours ago

File photo showing the side of a Phoenix police department SUV stopped in front of a wall on the si...

KTAR.com

South Phoenix collision leaves 1 dead, 2 others hospitalized

Phoenix detectives are investigating a collision Sunday morning that left one passenger dead, two other people hospitalized.

8 hours ago

(KTAR file photos)...

KTAR.com

Weekend wrap-up: Here are the biggest Phoenix news stories from March 1-3

From bad driving and airport expansions to crimes and sliders, here are some of the biggest stories in Phoenix from this weekend.

8 hours ago

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in Washington. The U.S. Supreme Court has h...

Associated Press

Supreme Court decision on Trump’s election status could come Monday morning

A SCOTUS decision could come Monday in the case about whether Trump can be kicked off the ballot over his efforts to undo his 2020 defeat.

9 hours ago

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley poses for a selfie after speakin...

Associated Press

Nikki Haley wins D.C. Republican primary, her first 2024 victory

Nikki Haley has won the Republican primary in the District of Columbia, notching her first victory of the 2024 campaign.

9 hours ago

FILE - A voting sign is seen near a voting center at Croft Baptist Church, Feb. 24, 2024, in Sparta...

Associated Press

A chunk of Republican primary and caucus voters say they wouldn’t vote for Trump as the GOP nominee

About 1 in 10 early contest voters who said they supported Trump in the 2020 general election said they wouldn’t be doing so this year.

12 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...

DISC Desert Institute for Spine Care

Sciatica pain is treatable but surgery may be required

Sciatica pain is one of the most common ailments a person can face, and if not taken seriously, it could become one of the most harmful.

...

Fiesta Bowl Foundation

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade is excitingly upon us

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade presented by Lerner & Rowe is upon us! The attraction honors Arizona and the history of the game.

...

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Valley residents should be mindful of plumbing ahead of holidays

With Halloween in the rear-view and more holidays coming up, Day & Night recommends that Valley residents prepare accordingly.

Apaches tell court copper mine would harm sacred sites