NATIONAL NEWS

Apaches tell court copper mine would harm sacred sites

Mar 20, 2023, 10:14 PM | Updated: Mar 21, 2023, 3:30 pm

FILE - Tribal councilman Wendsler Nosie Sr. speaks with Apache activists during a rally to save Oak...

FILE - Tribal councilman Wendsler Nosie Sr. speaks with Apache activists during a rally to save Oak Flat, land near Superior, Ariz., sacred to Western Apache tribes, in front of the U.S. Capitol on July 22, 2015, in Washington. An Apache group battling a foreign mining firm that wants to build one of the largest copper mines in the United States on what tribal members say is sacred land gets a new chance to make its point Tuesday, March 21, 2023, when a full federal appeals court panel takes another look at the case. (AP Photo/Molly Riley, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Molly Riley, File)

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.

National News

Associated Press

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange will plead guilty in deal with US and return to Australia

WASHINGTON (AP) — Wikileaks founder Julian Assange will plead guilty to a felony charge in a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that will resolve a long-running legal saga that spanned multiple continents and centered on the publication of a trove of classified documents, according to court papers filed late Monday. Assange is scheduled to […]

7 minutes ago

Associated Press

Sen. Bob Menendez’s Egypt trip planning got ‘weird,’ Senate staffer recalls at bribery trial

NEW YORK (AP) — A Senate staffer testified at a bribery trial that planning for Sen. Bob Menendez’s 2021 trip to Egypt and Qatar got “weird” after the Democrat directed that Egypt be included in the process, a Senate staffer testified Monday. Sarah Arkin, a senior staffer with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, testified as […]

33 minutes ago

Associated Press

Wisconsin taxpayers to pay half the cost of redistricting consultants hired by Supreme Court

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin taxpayers will pay half of the $128,000 bill submitted by redistricting consultants hired by the state’s Supreme Court for the work they did reviewing proposed legislative maps, the liberal majority of the court ordered Monday. Conservative justices dissented, sharply criticizing the majority for hiring the consultants and not divulging more […]

1 hour ago

Associated Press

Judge sets $10 million bond for Venezuelan man accused of killing a 12-year-old Houston girl

HOUSTON (AP) — A judge in Texas set bond of $10 million Monday for an undocumented Venezuelan man accused of killing a 12-year-old Houston girl whose body was found in a creek after she disappeared during a walk to a convenience store. Franklin Jose Peña Ramos, 26, is one of two men charged with capital […]

1 hour ago

Associated Press

TSA says it screened a record 2.99 million people Sunday, and bigger crowds are on the way

The number of air travelers moving through U.S. airports hit a record Sunday, and the new mark might not last through next weekend. The Transportation Security Administration said it screened 2.99 million people at airports Sunday, breaking the record of 2.95 million set on May 24, the Friday before Memorial Day. TSA forecasts that it […]

1 hour ago

Associated Press

Longest-serving Chicago City Council member gets 2 years in prison for corruption

CHICAGO (AP) — Ed Burke, the longest-serving City Council member in Chicago history, was sentenced to two years in prison Monday for squeezing developers who needed his help for permits. It was far short of the eight-year term recommended by federal prosecutors. With credit for good behavior, Burke will likely spend less than two years […]

2 hours ago

Apaches tell court copper mine would harm sacred sites