March 2020 Church & State | AU Bulletin

A federal court last month overturned the convictions of four activists who left food, water and other supplies for migrants in a remote part of Arizona that is part of a federal wildlife refuge.

The four – Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick – entered federal land without a permit in the summer of 2017 to leave the supplies. A magistrate judge later found them guilty of a series of misdemeanors. The online publication the Tucson Sentinel reported that Hoffman was found guilty of operating a motor vehicle in a wilderness area and entering a national refuge without a permit; Holcomb, Huse and Orozco-McCormick were found guilty of entering the region without a permit and abandonment of property.

The women, who are Unitarian Universalist church members, argued that they are compelled by their religious beliefs to offer aid to migrants, some of whom die while trying to cross the harsh southern Arizona desert in the summer.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Márquez overturned the decision of the lower judge, citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law that grants heightened protection to religious freedom.

Márquez ruled that “the depth, importance, and centrality of these beliefs caused Defendants to restructure their lives to engage in this volunteer work,” and she concluded that prosecuting the activists for their beliefs “substantially burdens their religious exercise.” (U.S. v. Hoffman)