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Federal court: Religious freedom law protects group providing aid to migrants from criminal convictions

Volunteers with the group No More Deaths were acting in accordance with their sincere religious beliefs, a federal judge in Arizona ruled, when they entered a wildlife refuge near the southern border to leave water and food for those crossing into the United States. The judge said that under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), because the government failed to establish that prosecuting them was the least restrictive means of protecting the refuge, their criminal convictions must be overturned.

RFRA prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religious, unless the government can prove that the burden is necessary to achieve a compelling state interest. The Court’s opinion provided a methodical analysis of the elements of RFRA in explaining why the defendants’ free exercise rights shielded them from prosecution in this case.

The defendants had been convicted by a magistrate judge of violating federal law barring entry into the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge without a permit. Permit holders are specifically barred from leaving water, food, clothing, blankets, or medical supplies in the Refuge, which is the site of several migrant deaths a year due to the extreme conditions. The convicted volunteers entered the refuge for the purpose of leaving water and food for migrants as an expression of the volunteers’ Christian faith.

The court rejected the government’s arguments that the defendants lacked the sincerity that RFRA requires because they were acting out of political – rather than religious – concerns. Look no further, the court suggested, than the suffering they endured:

The Government’s sole argument as to insincerity is that Defendants have merely “recited” religious beliefs “for the purpose of draping religious garb over their political activity.” However, the Government’s bright-line distinction between “political” and “religious” motivations fails as a matter of law. It is well established that sincere religious beliefs are no less deserving of protection merely because they may overlap with political or other secular beliefs. . . . While the Government points to evidence that could imply that some Defendants may have secular, philosophical, or political beliefs that overlap with their spiritual commitments, the Government points to no evidence that Defendants are informed by “purely secular considerations.

Additionally, the nature of Defendants’ conduct itself suggests sincerity. Defendants were convicted for activities that included hiking food and water into a rugged, unforgiving wilderness during Southern Arizona’s extreme August heat. The temperature at the time of the Defendants’ conduct was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As one Defendant testified, providing aid in this environment was “incredibly straining on the body” because “at that temperature . . . you’re dehydrated just by being there” and so “your brain is kind of fuzzy” and it is “hard to think clearly.” As another described the heat: “I mean, it’s exhausting. It’s heavy. Like, it feels like . . . a blanket. There’s nowhere to . .. hide from the sun.” As another put it:“[H]iking around in 110 degrees is not what I want to be doing with my time, but I do it because I feel the need to and obligated to be there and do my part.” …Defendants’ willingness to suffer for their beliefs… suggests…sincerity.

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The judge pointedly disagreed with the government’s contention that enforcing the law in this case is necessary to deter further illegal entry into the United States. That theory, the court reasoned, relies on the view that increasing the likelihood of migrant deaths is essential to U.S. border enforcement strategy. That “gruesome logic,” the judge wrote, “is profoundly disturbing.”

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In November of last year, a jury found No More Deaths volunteer Scott Warren not guilty on charges of providing aid to migrants. The judge in that case refused to dismiss the charges on the basis of Warren’s RFRA defense.

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