Notre Dame Law Students protect religious liberty for Indigenous sacred site

Author: Michelle McDaniel

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San Antonio River

Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic filed an amicus brief in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, urging the court to protect a sacred site in San Antonio, Texas, that is of great spiritual significance to many Indigenous tribes.

For centuries, generations of the Lipan-Apache people have gathered for prayer and worship at a particular bend in the Yanaguana known as the San Antonio River in English. It is an area central to the Yanaguana creation story. Given its spiritual importance to the Lipan-Apache people, it is the only place in the world where certain religious ceremonies may be performed.

The City of San Antonio is now preparing a project to restore concrete retaining walls in the area, which would destroy the spiritual ecology of the site by removing trees and driving away cormorants. As a part of its preparations, the City has already barred Lipan-Apache members from even accessing the site. If the project comes to pass, the Lipan-Apache people risk losing their ability to perform religious ceremonies that require the sacred convergence of the riverbend, the trees, and the birds that live there.

The Notre Dame Religious Liberty Clinic filed a brief to prevent this unnecessary destruction.

The Clinic’s brief argues that the city’s actions would perpetuate the country’s shameful history of governmental disregard for Indigenous sacred sites that deserve protection.

William Clark, Olivia Lyons, Christopher Ostertag, and Tess Skehan, students in the Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Clinic, contributed to the brief.

"This case should make clear that Indigenous religions, which frequently have land-based worship practices, are entitled to the same protections enjoyed by 'mainstream' Western religions," said Clark, a third-year law student.

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