Monday, November 22, 2021

RFRA Defense Precluded In Prosecution of Tribal Member For Violating Closure Order

In United States v. Ortega, (D AZ, Nov. 18, 2021), an Arizona federal district court, ruling on the government's motion in limine to preclude a defense under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the prosecution of a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation for violating a closure order at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, said in part:

There was no evidence presented that proved that the government interfered with Ms. Ortega’s prayers or ceremony at Quitobaquito Springs on 9/9/20, other than the distant sound of the heavy machinery. Ms. Ortega left the springs where she was praying and entered the closed construction area. The park rangers advised Ms. Ortega that the area under construction was closed to the public and she was instructed to leave, or she would be arrested.

Ms. Ortega was disturbed by the destruction and desecration of the land near the springs. She was spiritually wounded by the knowledge that the border wall was going to interrupt access of tribal members to their ancestral lands and that important medicinal plants would be destroyed. Construction of the border wall raised painful memories of the harms suffered by native people at the hands of the government throughout history. Ms. Ortega’s testimony was emotional and heartfelt. There is no question that her suffering is genuine and is rooted in her sincerely held religious beliefs. However, the defense was unable to prove that on 9/9/20 the closure order and the ranger’s lawful order that Ms. Ortega leave the construction zone imposed a substantial burden on her ability to engage in her religious activities.