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Religious groups urge federal appeals court to protect Oak Flat

Ryan Heinsius/KNAU
Oak Flat is a sacred site to the Western Apache and the site of key religious ceremonies. A federal land swap could turn over ownership to the international mining company Rio Tinto for the construction of one of the nation's largest copper mines near the town of Superior.

A broad coalition of religious groups are urging a federal appeals court to protect an Apache sacred site in Arizona from one of the nation’s largest copper mines. The court will rehear the case in March.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Seventh-day Adventists along with the Sikh and Jewish coalitions, among others, recently filed what are called friend-of-the-court briefs. They’re asking the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to stop a federal land swap that would transfer ownership of portions of Oak Flat on the Tonto National Forest to the international mining company Rio Tinto.

The area is home to critical ceremonies practiced by the Western Apache. The religious groups say if the mine goes forward it would permanently harm Apache spiritual practices and threaten the religious freedom and civil rights of people of all faiths.

The group Apache Stronghold is suing the federal government to prevent the land swap, arguing the mine would destroy the sacred site.

The company says it’s committed to tribal consultation and protecting cultural heritage. The 9th Circuit Court will rehear the case in March before a full 11-judge panel.

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom as executive producer in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.