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Becket Law

Sacred Native American land is on the chopping block after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on June 25 refused to protect Oak Flat from a foreign-owned copper mining company. In a 2-1 decision, which dissenting Judge Marsha Berzon called “absurd,” “illogical,” “disingenuous,” and “incoheren[t],” the court ruled that the government’s decision to transfer Oak Flat to Resolution Copper does not substantially burden Apaches’ religious practices — even though the mine will swallow the sacred site in a massive crater, ending those practices forever. Apache Stronghold — a coalition of Apaches, other Native peoples, and non-Native allies, which is represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — has vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Oak Flat is like Mount Sinai to us — our most sacred site where we connect with our Creator, our faith, our families, and our land,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr. of Apache Stronghold. “It is a place of healing that has been sacred to us since long before Europeans arrived on this continent. My children, grandchildren, and the generations after them deserve to practice our traditions at Oak Flat.”

Known in Apache as Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, Oak Flat has been protected from mining interests for more than six decades and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Western Apaches and other tribes have worshipped at Oak Flat since time immemorial (watch their story) and they still go there today to gather medicinal plants, visit sacred springs, and conduct essential ceremonies like the coming-of-age Sunrise Ceremony for Apache women — practices which cannot happen anywhere else.

The longstanding protections for Oak Flat were eliminated in 2014, when a midnight rider was sneaked into a must-pass bill and the United States government decided to transfer the land to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company. Resolution Copper’s mine will swallow the site in a 2-mile-wide and 1,100-foot-deep crater — rendering longstanding religious practices impossible and devastating the Apache way of life.

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“Today’s decision is, as the dissent says, ‘absurd,’ ‘illogical,’ and ‘incoheren[t]’: if anything violates the free exercise of religion, it is the complete destruction of a sacred site that ends religious practices forever,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “This ruling not only is devastating to Apaches and other Native Americans but also threatens people of all faiths — and should not stand up on appeal.”

Apache Stronghold’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is due on September 22, 2022. In addition to Becket, Apache Stronghold is represented by attorneys Michael V. Nixon and Clifford Levenson. 

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About Becket Law

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 25 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).

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