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Indigenous protester arrested at border wall argues religious freedom as defense

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

An Indigenous woman arrested for protesting former President Trump's border wall in Arizona is in federal court tomorrow. A judge is reconsidering whether she can use a religious freedom law as a defense. Alisa Reznick with member station KJZZ reports.

ALISA REZNICK, BYLINE: In 2020, Amber Ortega was arrested for entering a closed area and physically blocking border wall construction in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. She recorded herself singing in the moments before her arrest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMBER ORTEGA: (Singing in non-English language).

REZNICK: Last November Ortega testified that she was spiritually call to protect Quitobaquito Springs. It's a cherished water source nearby that she says is the reason the Hia C-ed O’odham tribe she's part of survived in the desert, and it's sacred. Facing federal misdemeanor charges of violating a closure order and interfering with government activity, her defense argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act should protect her from being prosecuted for practicing her religion. Defenses based on the act must prove a person's ability to practice their faith was substantially burdened by a government action. Federal Magistrate Judge Leslie Bowman originally ruled the act does not apply to Ortega's case, but she's reconsidering that decision now at the request of Ortega's new attorney, Amy Knight.

AMY KNIGHT: Part of what she's doing is witnessing this firsthand, and it is expressing her objections directly to the people who are doing the construction while it's going on. That's all part of her exercise of religion.

REZNICK: Federal prosecutors declined to be interviewed for this story. In court filings, they say none of the government's actions substantially burdened Ortega's ability to practice her religion. They say the federal government has the right to use the land it owned as it sees fit, and a person's religion can't prevent that. If Ortega is not allowed to use the act as a defense and is found guilty, she faces up to six months in prison. For NPR News, I'm Alisa Reznick in Tucson, Ariz.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANZ FERDINAND SONG, "40 FT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alisa Reznick
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