Four aid volunteers who left food and water for immigrants who illegally entered the country by way of the Arizona desert in 2017 had their criminal convictions overturned Monday by a federal judge who ruled that the government’s prosecution violated their religious freedom rights.
U.S. District Judge Rosemary Marquez, an Obama appointee, ruled that the four volunteers serving with the No More Deaths ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tuscan were engaging in a “sincere” exercise of their religious beliefs.
The volunteers — Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse, and Zaachila Orozco — left food and water in an area of rugged landscape in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge near the Mexico border where immigrants have been known to die of dehydration and exposure to extreme temperatures.
Last January, they were convicted by a federal magistrate of violating regulations governing the refuge and faced fines and probation since they entered without out a permit, drove on restricted-access roads and left food and water.
However, the defendants argued that their actions were taken with the goal of “mitigating death and suffering” and that the actions were exercises of religion protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“The Court finds that Defendants demonstrated that their prosecution for this conduct substantially burdens their exercise of sincerely held religious beliefs,” the ruling states. “[A]nd that the Government failed to demonstrate that prosecuting defendants is the least restrictive means of furthering any compelling governmental interest.”
The Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge spans over 800,000 acres in the Sonoran Desert.
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SOURCE: Christian Post, Samuel Smith