January 2020 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

An Arizona man who said he was compelled by his religious beliefs to offer food, water and shelter to two undocumented Central American men who crossed the border illegally has been found not guilty of harboring migrants.

Scott Warren, a geography teacher in Ajo who works with a group called No More Deaths, which is a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson, was arrested and tried on felony federal charges in January 2018. Border patrol agents raided a structure called “the Barn” about 40 miles north of the border in Arizona. There they found Warren with two men, Kristian Perez-Villanueva, 23, and José Arnaldo Sacaria-Goday, 20, who had crossed the border illegally. After wandering through the desert for two days, the two arrived at the Barn where Warren gave them food and shelter.

A federal jury deadlocked during Warren’s first trial, but this time the jury acquitted him entirely. National Public Radio (NPR) reported that the vote to acquit was unanimous, and that the jury deliberated less than three hours.

A few jurors later told reporters they believed the government had failed to make the case that Warren’s actions, which he said were humanitarian in nature, were a crime.

“They decided that humanitarian aid is not always a crime the way the government wanted it to be,” one of War­ren’s attorneys, Greg Kuykendall, told NPR. “Instead, they decided that hu­manitarian aid is virtually never a crime.”

Warren was also charged in a separate trial with misdemeanor charges of “abandonment of property” and “operating a motor vehicle in a wil­derness area” because he used a truck to leave water and supplies for migrants in the desert.

During that trial, Warren’s attorneys cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law passed in 1993 primarily to protect the rights of minority religious groups, arguing that Warren’s actions are protected because they’re religiously motivated.

U.S. District Judge Raner Collins ruled in late November that Warren was guilty of unlawfully using a vehicle on federal land, but found him not guilty of the abandonment of property charge.

“Defendant was obliged to leave water jugs because of his religious beliefs, and the Government’s regulation imposes a substantial burden on this exercise of his religion,” Col­lins wrote in his decision.

Since its passage, RFRA has been twisted by conservatives to defend actions that discriminate against others or deny them services or health care. Its use by Warren’s attorneys in this case represents a rare instance of the law’s being cited by progressives.

“Ultimately, what this decision says is that there are other ways that the government can protect its alleged interest in ‘securing the border’ than by prosecuting a person of faith who is trying to prevent people from dying of dehydration,” Elizabeth Reiner Platt, director of Colum­bia University’s Law, Rights, and Religion Project, told the Huffington Post.