Notre Dame defends religious freedom in Oak Flat oral argument

A group of Western Apaches and a diverse coalition of legal and religious experts today urged the government in federal court to protect Native American sacred sites on the same basis as other religious groups. 

The Ninth Circuit heard arguments again in Apache Stronghold v. United States after the court decided last fall to hear the case en banc (in front of a full panel of eleven judges) in Pasadena, CA. Less than 1% of en banc hearing requests are reheard. 

“It is my hope that after today’s arguments in the Ninth Circuit the government will correct a troubling double standard in the law that has disenfranchised Native American practitioners and continued a history of government callous disregard of their sacred sites,” said Professor Stephanie Barclay, faculty director of the Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Clinic. “I’m optimistic that the Court will issue a ruling that reinforces the important protections the Religious Freedom Restoration Act provides for people of all faiths, and for all places of worship, whether church, mosque, synagogue, or a sacred place like Oak Flat.”

“Legal precedent protects Native Americans' religious freedom just as much as every other American's, and I'm grateful that the Apache trusted us to send that message today,” said Notre Dame Law School student William C. Eisenhauer. “It has been a privilege to help Professor Barclay prepare for oral argument. This experience has shown me the tremendous amount of work necessary for effective oral advocacy, especially in such an important case.”

The Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Clinic is representing the National Congress of American Indians, an Apache Tribal Elder, and other groups that protect Native American cultural heritage and rights, alongside the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and many other religious groups who are speaking out against the injustice in this case. The clinic filed an amicus brief in September 2022. 

Originally published by Anna Bradley at on March 21, 2023.