Arizona Pro-Palestinian Protesters Sue, Argue Authorities Violated Their Religious Freedom - Word&Way

Arizona Pro-Palestinian Protesters Sue, Argue Authorities Violated Their Religious Freedom

(RNS) — A group of Arizona religious leaders and activists is taking the state to court, arguing authorities violated protesters’ religious rights in arresting them during a pro-Palestinian demonstration in November.

In a motion filed last week, four defendants argued that Arizona’s Free Exercise of Religion Act, a state law that resembles the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, protects their right to demonstrate. They are seeking dismissal of trespassing charges against them.

A Palestinian boy sits on the rubble of his building destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Nuseirat camp in the Gaza Strip on Oct. 16, 2023. (Hatem Moussa/Associated Press)

“Defendants’ protest was a sincere exercise of religious expression which is burdened by this prosecution,” the motion reads. “FERA protects the free exercise of religion in Arizona not only against purposeful discrimination, but as here, against the government using a law to prosecute that is of general applicability that substantially burdens any individual’s religious exercise.”

The case centers on a demonstration that took place outside the Tucson offices of RTX, formerly known as Raytheon Technologies, a major U.S. defense contractor. Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war in October, pro-Palestinian activists have staged multiple protests outside various offices of RTX, which produces missiles and weaponry used by the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF is currently engaged in a lengthy ground assault into the Gaza Strip that has killed as many as 34,000 people following a Hamas-led attack on Israel Oct. 7 that left 1,200 people dead and hundreds more taken hostage.

In late November, an interfaith group of demonstrators along with others organized by the Tucson Coalition for Palestine gathered outside RTX facilities in the University of Arizona Tech Park to stage a protest. The demonstration, which included some protesters blocking an entrance into the site, resulted in more than 20 arrests.

Among those handcuffed and charged with trespassing was the Rev. Seth Wispelwey, a defendant listed in the motion who serves as the minister for economic justice for the United Church of Christ denomination. In an interview with Religion News Service, Wispelwey noted that he has a brother who works in the occupied Palestinian territories, but said his religious beliefs were a key reason for his participation in the protest, pointing out that he wore his clerical collar during the demonstration.

“I believe and know that God has a lot to say about the uses of our money, both personally and as communities — and ours as a genocide economy,” said Wispelwey. The allegation of genocide has become common among pro-Palestinian demonstrators, who insist Israel’s actions against Palestinians — which include the displacement of nearly 2 million people and sparking a humanitarian crisis experts warn is on the precipice of famine — amount to genocide. It’s an argument also forwarded by South Africa in the International Court of Justice late last year, which was cited in the Arizona motion. (The ICJ did not order Israel to cease its campaign but did proceed with the case, although a final ruling could take years.)

“We were doing nothing but standing on that piece of property, singing, chanting, praying in the road, when we were dragged off,” said Wispelwey, who was also among the religious leaders who counterprotested white supremacists during the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

RTX did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the case.

Wispelwey added that many of those who participated in the protest were Jewish, including one of the defendants listed in the motion, Josie L. Shapiro. In the court filing, Shapiro is described as a former Holocaust educator and aspiring rabbi who argues the decision to protest was motivated by “the Talmudic obligation that those with the power to intervene to prevent wrongdoing must do so.”

The motion adds: “Shapiro was also motivated by the overriding value of human life under Jewish law, a value which supersedes other obligations under the Halachic principle of Pikuach nefesh.”

Two other defendants, Katherine Anna Marie Oftedahl and Jaclyn Ann Hubersberger, list Christian inspiration for their protest. Oftedahl cites Psalm 82 — “Do justice to the afflicted and needy” — and Hubersberger appeals to Quakerism, a Protestant tradition with a long history of pacifism and anti-war protest.

“Hubersberger is a pacifist who was motivated to protest U.S. complicity in mass death and suffering in Gaza by a religious belief that all life is sacred and interconnected and that the divine dwells within each individual,” the motion reads. “Hubersberger believes that when humans destroy other human beings, we are destroying that which is a reflection of God. Hubersberger’s faith requires loyalty to the oppressed as a spiritual imperative.”

The motion argues that FERA protects the defendants “even from laws of general applicability and facial neutrality” such as trespassing because the defendants acted out of sincerely held religious belief, and that their arrest “substantially burdens the exercise of religious beliefs.”

The argument is unusual but not unprecedented. A similar claim has worked before in Arizona: In 2020, a federal judge reversed the convictions of four faith-based volunteers who were fined and put on probation for aiding migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, arguing they were exercising their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Alyssa Dormer and Greg Kuykendall, lawyers representing the defendants, said in an email that they are “confident that the state cannot meet its evidentiary burden of proving that prosecuting these believers furthers a compelling governmental interest, and also demonstrate it has adopted the least restrictive means of achieving that goal.”

“I believe this call to show up on Raytheon’s doorstep was me and my fellow defendants taking very seriously the ostensible right we have to practice our religious beliefs freely,” Wispelwey said.

“I prayerfully put my faith into practice understanding that, ultimately, its validation — or not — will not come from the state.”