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The Acquittal of Scott Warren: A Humanitarian Perspective

UUSC's Senior Grassroots Organizer Hannah Hafter takes a closer look at what the acquittal of Scott Warren means for humanitarian aid work.

By Hannah Hafter on November 26, 2019

What does the No More Deaths verdict mean?

After nearly two years of uncertainty, Scott Warren and the team at No More Deaths can finally breathe freely after 12 jurors ruled on Wednesday, Nov 20 that he was “not guilty” of felony harboring charges for providing food, water, and orientation to two men lost in the desert while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Nearly 20 Unitarian Universalist faith and social justice leaders—including UUSC’s Director of Activism & Justice Education Rev. Kathleen McTigue and UUA’s Side With Love Campaign Manager Everette Thompson—traveled to Tucson to participate in a prayer vigil in front of the courthouse and the Faith Floods the Courtroom day of action, which coincided with the final day of the trial and the announcement of the verdict.

In addition to the jury’s decision for acquittal on the two felony charges, the judge also found Scott not guilty of a misdemeanor charge for leaving water in the desert.* In this case, Judge Collins declared that leaving the water for migrants was an expression of religious belief, and was therefore covered under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

We at UUSC have been deeply honored to journey alongside Scott Warren, No More Deaths, and the UU Church of Tucson to resist the criminalization of activism. Along with  countless humanitarian aid activists in Arizona and many faith communities around the country, we’ve built a national movement to insist that “Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime.” The attention this case received has spotlighted the stories of migrants who are themselves criminalized for fleeing violence and seeking a better life.

In his statement outside the courthouse after the ruling, Scott expressed concern for the two migrants who were arrested with him that day in Ajo, AZ, when he was charged. “And to migrants like Jose and Kristian, who are truly the ones at the center of this story, our hearts are with you for the dignity, respect, and self determination that is your right. Unfortunately, the damage to land and life in the border region not only continues, but has been ramped up, way up, since all of this began. Throughout the trial we mistakenly referred to the land surrounding Ajo as a military range, a wilderness, a Border Patrol area of responsibility. But it’s O’odham land. All of it. And now, a new 30 foot high wall threatens further dispossession of native people and the destruction of this important and beautiful landscape. Let’s all take a deep breath, get some rest, and be ready for—and open to—whatever comes next.” (Note: The O’odham people are an Indigenous tribe that have historically inhabited the areas now known as central and southern Arizona)

Now that the dust is settling, it’s clear that there are implications from this case that reach far beyond the Sonoran desert. What does this verdict mean for humanitarian aid and faith-based resistance?

“Helping” is not the Same as Felony “Harboring”

This case created an important precedent by drawing a distinction between “helping” and “harboring,” which has an impact far beyond the border context. There is a real risk of harboring charges being used against family members of undocumented immigrants just for providing housing or transportation. Scott’s acquittal lays a strong foundation for the defense of anyone charged with “harboring” for simply being human with other people around them and offering help when it’s needed. It could be especially important for people in mixed-status families.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) Isn’t Just for the Christian Right

Of the judge’s decision on the misdemeanor charge, the Law, Rights, and Religion Project at Columbia Law School stated, “In a groundbreaking decision, Judge Collins found that leaving water for migrants in the desert was an expression of Dr. Warren’s sincerely held religious beliefs, and that the government’s criminal prosecution for this activity violated his religious liberty rights secured by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)…The judge explicitly held that Dr. Warren’s religious liberty rights must be treated with equal dignity and gravity as conservative Christian actors, such as the owners of the business Hobby Lobby that raised a faith-based objection to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that it include contraceptives in its employee health plan.”

UU Justice Arizona (UUJAZ) Executive Director Janine Gelsinger was in the courtroom when that ruling was announced. She reflects, “We all looked at each other with widened eyes as the reality of that ruling set in. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) being used to uphold our liberal religious values has implications that are exciting and still unknown. To set a precedent like this certainly protects the work of No More Deaths, and could possibly extend to other humanitarian projects.”

“Religious Freedom” Is Upheld Beyond Organized Religion

Scott’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act defense (RFRA) on the misdemeanor “littering” charge for leaving water in the desert was not attached to him identifying as part of a specific organized religion. While No More Deaths is a ministry of the UU Church of Tucson, most volunteers don’t identify as UU, and Scott presented a powerful case based on his deeply held spiritual beliefs but not on a connection to any religious institution. The fact that this defense was successful and specifically named by the judge in his ruling opens the door wider for what can be considered “religious freedom” for people defending human rights and the planet.

You can find Scott Warren’s full statement following the acquittal, as well as a statement from Desert Aid volunteer Geena Jackson, here. And we agree with Scott: as we celebrate this important victory, let’s all take a deep breath, get some rest, and be ready for whatever comes next in this ongoing struggle for justice.

To read an in-depth analysis for the repercussions of the Warren decision, please read this article in The Intercept.

*Scott was, however, found guilty of the second misdemeanor charge: operating a motor vehicle in a restricted area. Sentencing will occur in February and may entail a $75 fine and received community service. No More Deaths still sees the verdict as a whole as a success.

Photo Credit: UUSC

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About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!

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