Oak Flat gets a second chance in federal court Ninth Circuit rehears Apache Stronghold’s appeal to save sacred land
Ryan Colby 202-349-7219 firstname.lastname@example.org
PASADENA, Calif. – A federal court of appeals heard arguments again today in Apache Stronghold’s plea to save their sacred site at Oak Flat. In Apache Stronghold v. United States, a three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit previously ruled that the government could transfer Oak Flat to a foreign-owned mining company that will turn the site into a massive crater, ending Apache religious practices forever (Watch this short video to learn more). Last November, the court voted to rehear the case “en banc”—in front of a full panel of eleven judges—and today the Apaches and their allies made their case in the courtroom in Pasadena, California.
“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,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr. of Apache Stronghold. “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. We are hopeful that this time around, the Ninth Circuit will save Oak Flat.”
Since time immemorial, Western Apache and other native peoples have gathered at Oak Flat for essential religious ceremonies that cannot take place anywhere else. Oak Flat has been protected for decades by the federal government from mining and other harmful practices that would make the land unusable for the Apache’s religious exercise. Those protections were eliminated in 2014, when a midnight provision was inserted into a must-pass defense bill authorizing the transfer of Oak Flat to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company that plans to turn the sacred site into a two-mile-wide and 1,100-foot-deep crater.
This past November, the Ninth Circuit decided to reconsider its decision, granting Apache Stronghold and their sacred site at Oak Flat another chance in court. Eleven judges on the Ninth Circuit reheard the case today and will decide whether the government can legally destroy sacred sites.
“The government’s position in this case is that it can obliterate a place of worship for any reason or none at all, and not face consequences under federal religious liberty law,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “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. A win for Apache Stronghold will be a win for people of all faiths.”
In addition to Becket, Apache Stronghold is represented by attorneys Michael V. Nixon and Clifford Levenson.
A decision by the Ninth Circuit is expected in the summer of 2023.