Four women who were convicted for driving into an Arizona wildlife refuge and left food and water for migrants crossing illegally into the United States in 2017, have seen their convictions overturned by a federal judge.
Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse, and Saachila Orozco-McCormick, were volunteers with with the No More Deaths ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson when they crossed into the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in 2017 to leave cans of beans and jugs of water for migrants who crossed one of the state's largest wilderness area. The desert is located near the U.S.-Mexico border where many migrants have reportedly died there of dehydration and exposure thanks to the extreme temperatures there.
All four were convicted in 2019 for entering a federally controlled refuge without a permit and abandoning property. Hoffman was additionally charged with operating a motor vehicle on a restricted access road.
All four were sentenced to 15 months of unsupervised probation and fined $250 each. They were also banned from the refuge during the period of their probation.
However, their lawyers appealed the convictions, citing the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires the government to accommodate a person's religious beliefs when enforcing the law. Judge Rosemary Márquez of the United District Court in Arizona agreed.
"Defendants met their burden of establishing that their activities were exercises of their sincere religious beliefs, and the Government failed to demonstrate that application of the regulations against Defendants is the least restrictive means of accomplishing a compelling interest," the 22-page ruling reads.
"Accordingly, the Court finds that application of the regulations against Defendants violates RFRA (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act), and the Court will reverse Defendants' convictions."
The ruling orders that the four defendants be acquitted of charges and the sentences vacated. Any fines or fees that were collected as part of the trial process will also be refunded to the defendants.
The organization, No More Deaths, hailed the judge's decision in a statement provided to CNN.
"This ruling reaffirms what No More Deaths has always maintained: providing life-saving humanitarian aid is never a crime," No More Deaths volunteer Alicia Dinsmore said in a statement.
"The reversal of the convictions is a victory for all people of conscience and righteousness who seek to end the death and suffering in the borderlands."
No More Deaths states that its mission is to "to end death and suffering in the Mexico–US borderlands through civil initiative: people of conscience working openly and in community to uphold fundamental human rights."