PHOENIX (AP) — An Apache group battling a foreign mining company that wants to build one of the largest copper mines in the United States on what tribal members say is sacred land will get a new chance to make its point Tuesday when a Full federal appeals court panel takes another look at the case.
The 11-judge panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals will meet Tuesday morning in a courthouse in Pasadena, Calif., to hear Apache Stronghold’s appeal to save Oak Flat, a site east of Phoenix that the group considers sacred.
“It’s not just Oak Flat, it’s all cases involving litigation over sacred American Indian sites,” said Luke Goodrich, the attorney who will defend Apache Stronghold. Goodrich is a vice president and senior counsel at the non-profit law firm Becket Law, which handles cases involving religious liberty.
Apache Stronghold is suing the US government under the 30-year Religious Freedom Restoration Act, saying its plans to transfer Oak Flat land to the mining company through a land swap would place an undue burden on tribal members seeking to practice their religion.
A smaller 9th Circuit panel earlier ruled 2-1 that the federal government could give Oak Flat land to Resolution Copper for a mining project that would engulf the site, ending Apache religious practices there. The court later agreed to allow a larger group to hear the case.
A final decision was not expected on Tuesday and it could be several months before one is issued, Goodrich said.
Apache Stronghold members traveled from Arizona for the hearing, stopping in towns along the way to draw attention to the case. They gathered on Monday at a community arts center in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Called Chi’chil Bildagoteel, Oak Flat is dotted with ancient oak groves and traditional plants that the Apache consider essential to their religion.
An environmental impact investigation for the project was withdrawn as the US Department of Agriculture consulted for months with Native American tribes and others about their concerns about Oak Flat. The environmental review will need to be re-released before a Tonto National Forest land swap can proceed.
The land transfer was a last-minute provision included in a defense bill to be passed 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 lots he owns in other parts of Arizona.
“We respect the legal process and are following this case closely,” said Resolution Copper, a joint venture of global mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP, in a statement on the eve of the hearing. previous supports the district court’s rejection of Apache Stronghold’s claims.
“There is significant local support for the Resolution Copper project and we will continue our efforts to understand and address any concerns raised,” the statement said.
He added that the project has the potential to supply enough copper to meet up to a quarter of U.S. demand, adding up to $1 billion annually to Arizona’s economy and creating thousands of local jobs.
The Poor People’s Campaign, environmental groups, and the National Congress of American Indians are among the many groups supporting the Apache Stronghold fight.
Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Freedom Clinic filed a “friend of the court” brief in the case. Stephanie Barclay, director of the Religious Liberty Initiative at Notre Dame, will participate in the oral discussions.