Faith groups make new Oak Flat appeal

Oak Flat is about 40 miles east of Phoenix in the Tonto National Forest. — Wikimedia Commons Oak Flat is about 40 miles east of Phoenix in the Tonto National Forest. — Wikimedia Commons

Mennonite organizations have joined new legal effort in a longstanding campaign to prevent copper mining at a sacred Indigenous site in Arizona.

The Mennonite Church USA Executive Board and MC USA’s Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference filed a friend-of-the-court brief April 25.

Nineteen additional churches and organizations — including Mennonite Mission Network, Mennonite Men and numerous MC USA-affiliated congregations — also signed on as friends of the court.

The brief supports a petition by Apache-Stronghold for a new hearing on the potential destruction of the sacred site, Oak Flat.

Apache and other Southwestern Indigenous peoples have waged a 20-year struggle to prevent the federally owned site from being given to Resolution Copper, a Phoenix-based affiliate of British-Australian mining companies, for a new copper mine.

In March, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal government can transfer Oak Flat to Resolution Copper. Apache-Stronghold, an Apache-led organization, appealed the decision.

The brief supports Apache-Stronghold’s position based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Drawing from a previous brief filed on behalf of MC USA and others in 2023, it responds to the court’s concern that ruling for the Apache-Stronghold would create a “slippery slope” for future RFRA claims about federal land.

“[T]he Apache have an unparalleled historical connection to Oak Flat . . . and the government act they challenge would unquestionably destroy this sacred site,” attorney Eric N. Kniffin wrote in the brief. “These characteristics are relevant to the RFRA analysis and would help courts, in appropriate cases, distinguish between the Apache’s RFRA claim here and other religious groups seeking access to federal land.”

He noted that the Western Apache have been making pilgrimages to this spot since before the Mennonite tradition was founded in 1525.

“Mennonites resonate with the Apache’s attachment to Oak Flat,” Kniffin wrote. “Like the Apache, caring for creation and receiving care from God’s natural world is woven into the Mennonite faith, from its heritage in rural farming to its practice of planting peace gardens at the sites of urban gun violence. Both traditions know God tends us through creation.”

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