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Native Americans argue in court that 2 mining projects would destroy religious sites


In the West, the fate of two large mines now rests with a federal appeals court. Those mines are considered important for the country's green energy transition. Native Americans are arguing the mines, on federal land once controlled by tribes, would destroy their sacred religious sites. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on the legal question of blocking big development projects for religious reasons.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: On a recent morning outside a federal courthouse in Pasadena, Calif., Josh Dini led a traditional prayer.

JOSH DINI: (Non-English language spoken).

SIEGLER: Holding an eagle staff, Dini and others are protesting what would be the largest lithium mine in the U.S. on federal land in northern Nevada. Inside the courthouse, there was a last-ditch appeal going on by tribes and environmentalists to block it.

DINI: It's going to happen. I mean, it's - they've tooken over our lands since the beginning of time. What do we do? We continue the prayer. We stay in prayer, and we pray for those that are up there that are destroying the land.

SIEGLER: A member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe of Nevada, Dini considers that land ancestral territory. It's believed to be the site of an ancient massacre of Paiute people. And today, he says, elders still travel there for religious ceremonies just like Christians in a holy church.

DINI: You know, we don't go into their cemetery and start digging stuff up, you know, and want to put buildings there.

SIEGLER: Dini is touching on an ages-old frustration in Indian country that's gaining new life today as the U.S. government is pushing for more critical minerals needed to electrify the country's transportation system. Tribal activists from Nevada to Idaho to Arizona are asserting mining projects would desecrate their sacred sites on ancestral lands. In an Arizona case, also on appeal before the 9th Circuit here, the San Carlos Apache Tribe and others allege a copper mine would violate the First Amendment, raising the question, can a freedom of religion claim actually stop a big project?

HOLLY HOLLMAN: Historically, the court has recognized that the Constitution protects religions that treat particular physical sites as sacred.

SIEGLER: Attorney Holly Hollman is with the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. She says there are legal gray areas when it comes to who gets to claim violations of religious liberty and how broadly.

HOLLMAN: But that doesn't take away from the idea that people should be aware that this land has particular significance for Native Americans that we don't normally think about when you think about religious liberty in America as applied to the majority.

SIEGLER: Experts see this as an important moment as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled this term in favor of religious freedom proponents. In the Arizona case, one of the questions before the lower court appears to be whether that mine could be developed, as the industry argues, while still protecting the sacred sites. Law professor Tom Berg runs the Religious Liberty Clinic at the University of St. Thomas.

TOM BERG: It's really one of the most important Native American religious freedom cases in years.

SIEGLER: Berg filed a brief in support of the Apaches. He says tribes may have a good case under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It says that the government can't, quote, "substantially burdened" someone's religious practices.

BERG: It's not an automatic win for tribes in every case by any means, but it will push the government across the board to be very careful in taking account of serious effect on Native American practices.

SIEGLER: Still, a ruling in favor of tribes could set off a flurry of new religious freedom challenges across the 9th Circuit, home to the most federal land in the country and some of the largest reservations.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

SIEGLER: Back outside the Pasadena courthouse, Wendsler Nosie Sr. traveled from Arizona to join the protesters. The charismatic former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe has been camping in Oak Flat, Ariz., protesting the copper mine.

WENDSLER NOSIE SR: I mean, there's other ways of protesting these things, but this is the most important way 'cause we're talking about life. We're talking about everybody's children. We're talking about every water or land base that's being destroyed.

SIEGLER: Nosie says the U.S. government is breaking treaties meant to protect tribes' sacred lands. A ruling in the appeal of both mines could come any day.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Pasadena. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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