Unitarians in the desert: A few basic facts go a long way in explaining religious freedom lawsuit

I’m shaking my head.

The answer was easy. So easy.

Why then didn’t NPR bother to include it?

Here’s what I’m talking about: Back in October, I wrote about an NPR piece with a compelling title of “Deep In The Desert, A Case Pits Immigration Crackdown Against Religious Freedom.”

I offered lukewarm praise for parts of that report, but mostly I questioned the lack of specific facts concerning the lawsuit and, more precisely, the religion angle. I noted that NPR mentioned a humanitarian aid organization called No More Deaths and quoted a volunteer named Scott Warren.

But I complained:

Is it too much to want to know the specific nature of Warren’s religious beliefs? Does he belong to an actual faith group? Or are his beliefs purely personal in nature?

Such information would be extremely helpful and enlightening to know.

Fast-forward to today when the Wall Street Journal published a story on the same lawsuit.

And guess what? The Journal nails the crucial details that NPR missed. I love it when that happens!

Let’s start at the top — and see if any vital information that NPR missed doesn’t grab you up high:

In one of the most desolate corners of the country, a new and closely watched battle over religious rights has taken root.

A federal magistrate judge in Arizona is deciding whether a group of border-aid volunteers accused of trespassing on a national wildlife refuge near Mexico has a religious right to help immigrants making dangerous treks across the Sonoran Desert.

The dispute first surfaced in the summer last year deep inside the Cabeza Prieta wilderness, an expanse of sun-scorched valleys and lava-capped mountains sharing a 56-mile border with Sonora, Mexico. Home to rattlesnakes, lizards and desert tortoises, the land has been described by federal wildlife officials as "the loneliest international boundary on the continent" and "incredibly hostile to those who need lots of water to live."

The nine defendants--mostly 20-something volunteers for a relief group associated with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson--admit they lacked permits when they ventured into the desert in pickup trucks loaded with jugs of water and cans of beans. But they argue that they were on a sacred mission to save human lives.

Hmmmm. So the “humanitarian aid organization” referenced by NPR is more precisely defined as a “relief group associated with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson.” In a story about religious freedom, how in the vast dry desert did NPR neglect to point out the church connection to the group it covered?

Simply knowing that connection makes the lawsuit — and the players involved in it — so much more understandable.

Not familiar with the Unitarian Universalist Church? Here is how the Religion News Association’s religion stylebook describes it:

Unitarian Universalist

The Unitarian Universalist Association encourages a wide spectrum of belief. Many members believe in God, but atheists also find a home in this denomination. Unitarian Universalists do not believe Jesus was divine and are not considered Christians, although they would welcome Christians — or just about anyone — in their churches. They employ a congregational form of government.

But the Journal doesn’t require readers to do their own background research. Keep reading, and the paper outlines the legal arguments:

A central question in the case is whether the defendants are protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bipartisan law signed by President Clinton in 1993.

The law expanded religious protections beyond the First Amendment and its guarantee of the right to practice one's faith free of government interference. Under the statute, the federal government may not hinder a person from exercising sincerely held religious beliefs without a compelling and unavoidable reason.

Department of Justice lawyers say enforcement of the permit rules serves important government interests: protecting the wilderness character of Cabeza Prieta--the third largest national wildlife refuge in the continental U.S.--and deterring illegal immigration. Accommodating the relief workers would lead to a flood of religious-exemption requests that would create regulatory chaos and threaten wildlife, the government has argued.

Prosecutors have also questioned whether the defendants' relief missions are truly religious in nature, suggesting the defendants were motivated by political or "purely secular" philosophical concerns.

Also, the Journal puts a face on the defendants, including Warren (the volunteer earlier quoted by NPR):

No More Deaths, the aid group organizing the missions, is a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson, which describes itself as a non-creedal, spiritually diverse religion united by shared values.

To counter the government, the defendants submitted sworn declarations describing their faith.

Logan Hollarsmith, a carpenter from New Orleans, said he's learned lessons of compassion in the teachings of Jesus and Buddha. When he's not living in a wooden shack he built in the backyard of a friend, he's traveling the globe on humanitarian missions, most recently to a storm-ravaged island near Puerto Rico. "My spirituality is not abstract. It is as real as my hammer and my truck and my hands," he told the court.

Defendant Scott Daniel Warren, a cultural geographer at Arizona State University, said he views Cabeza Prieta as a sacred place. "It's a graveyard. And just the act of moving through that space, that place, to me is a deeply spiritual experience," he said. Mr. Warren is separately battling a felony charge of harboring two migrants in the country illegally.

Courts have been reluctant to define the boundaries of faith--up to a limit. A federal appeals court in 2016, for example, ruled against a Hawaii man charged with distributing marijuana who claimed he had "a divine command to spread cannabis far and wide."

I don’t mean to be overly harsh concerning the NPR report.

It’s just amazing to me to read the Journal story and realize how close NPR was — with just a few extra words and pieces of context — to nailing the basic facts.

Why didn’t NPR do so? Honestly, I have no idea.

But I’m really glad the Journal did.

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