A federal judge has ruled that President Donald Trump’s administration, which often boasts about defending religious liberty, has violated the religious rights of a group of volunteers at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Trump administration has spent years cracking down on the work of No More Deaths/No Más Muertes, a Unitarian Universalist ministry in Arizona that provides water and food to migrants crossing a treacherous stretch of desert along the border where dozens have died. Various members of No More Deaths have faced fines and even jail for what they consider to be faith-based, life-saving humanitarian aid.
But for the second time in months, a judge has ruled that the government shouldn’t be punishing these volunteers for putting their faith into practice.
U.S. District Judge Rosemary Márquez ruled Monday that four volunteers who left water and food for migrants at the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge were acting according to their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” As a result, the government substantially burdened the volunteers’ religious liberty by prosecuting them for this work, Marquez said.
“Given Defendants’ professed beliefs, the concentration of human remains on the [refuge], and the risk of death in that area, it follows that providing aid on the [refuge] was necessary for Defendants to meaningfully exercise their beliefs,” the judge wrote.
Márquez’s ruling reversed the decision of a lower court, where another judge dismissed the volunteers’ religious liberty claims and sentenced them to probation and fines last March.
The case against the four volunteers ― Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick ― goes back to December 2017, a year when 32 sets of human remains were recovered from the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. The volunteers were charged with misdemeanors for entering the wildlife refuge without proper permits and leaving behind jugs of water and cans of beans, which the government called abandonment of property.
The volunteers’ defense hinged on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). The law states that if a defendant can prove that the government is substantially burdening her “sincerely held religious beliefs,” then the government has to show that it’s using the “least restrictive” path to achieving its goals.
“This ruling shows that religious freedom is not just for the Christian right, as the Trump administration would have us believe.”
RFRA initially had broad bipartisan support. But more recently, the religious right has been using RFRA as a way to secure exemptions for conservative beliefs about abortion and LGBTQ rights. The evangelical Christian owners of the Hobby Lobby craft stores famously used RFRA to avoid paying for insurance coverage for contraception.
Under Trump, the Department of Justice has urged a narrow reading of RFRA claims made by people of faith who do not share the administration’s policy goals, according to Katherine Franke, faculty director of Columbia University’s Law, Rights, and Religion Project.
“The Trump Department of Justice has taken a biased approach to defending and enforcing religious liberty rights under RFRA, robustly protecting the rights of conservative Evangelical Christians while prosecuting people whose faith moves them to oppose the government’s policies,” Franke told HuffPost in an email.
Michael Bailey, the Trump-nominated U.S. attorney for Arizona, said his team has no issue with Márquez’s finding that strong religious beliefs motivated the defendants’ acts.
“We highly value religious freedom without regard to where on the spectrum one’s beliefs might fall,” Bailey told HuffPost in a statement.
No More Deaths is a Unitarian Universalist ministry. But all four volunteers are technically religiously unaffiliated, which means they are part of a growing group of Americans who decline to identify with any specific religious tradition.
During testimonies, the four described feeling a spiritual calling to volunteer, inspired by beliefs about the sanctity of human life. They also spoke about taking moments of silence in the refuge to reflect on the suffering of those crossing the desert.
Holcomb said that she had constructed a “personal altar” at her home that included a ring of water bottles she picked up in the desert.
“There is ... for me, I will say, like a deep spiritual need and a calling to do work based on what I believe in the world,” Holcomb testified, according to the judge’s opinion.
In its response to the volunteers’ appeal, the government argued that their beliefs were not truly religious because they didn’t explain how they fit into a “particular system of religious or spiritual beliefs.” The government also asserted that the volunteers were “draping religious garb” over “secular philosophical concerns.”
In her opinion, Márquez said that the volunteers’ RFRA claims can’t be dismissed just because they described their beliefs in broad terms and don’t belong to an established religion. She pointed out that religious and political motivations overlapped in the Hobby Lobby case. That Supreme Court verdict has shown that government faces an “exceptionally demanding” obligation to be minimally restrictive while imposing on a person’s religious exercise, Márquez said.
Ultimately, the government had failed to demonstrate that prosecuting the volunteers was the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling governmental interest, the judge said.
Márquez’s decision comes months after another No More Deaths volunteer, Scott Warren, was acquitted of a federal misdemeanor charge for leaving water jugs in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge for migrants. The judge in that case also acknowledged that Warren’s action was protected by his right to religious freedom. That was one of the first times progressive religious beliefs related to immigration have been protected in this way, the Law, Rights, and Religion Project told HuffPost in November.
Franke said there are other cases where progressive people of faith are making religious exemption claims. The Rev. Kaji Douša, a New York pastor and immigrant rights activist, claims the federal government violated her religious freedom when she was detained and placed on a watch list for ministering to asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. The government has “trivialized” Douša’s RFRA claims and urged the court to dismiss them, Franke said.
In Philadelphia, the DOJ is trying to prevent a faith-based overdose prevention organization from opening a safe injection site, arguing that its “true motivation is socio-political or philosophical — not religious — and thus not protected by RFRA.”
Franke said that when Congress passed RFRA in 1993, the statute was meant to protect the religious liberty of people across a wide spectrum of beliefs, “not just some, and certainly not only those who hold religious beliefs that were shared with the current federal administration.”
Parker Deighan, a spokesperson for No More Deaths, told HuffPost that Márquez’s ruling on Monday reaffirms that “providing humanitarian aid is never a crime.”
“This ruling shows that religious freedom is not just for the Christian right, as the Trump administration would have us believe,” she said. “We hope that that Judge Marquez’s ruling signifies a shift towards religious freedom exemptions being used to protect the work of people and organizations fighting on the side of justice, such as migrant solidarity organizations and indigenous peoples fighting for protection of their sacred lands and traditions, rather than protection for discrimination and bigotry.”