Reporting San Antonio

Lawsuit: ‘Stop the City of San Antonio from Desecrating a Holy Place’

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Mexica danzantes at Brackenridge Park in 2022 with several impacted trees in the background. Image: Greg Harman

A City of San Antonio redevelopment project rooted in the destruction of birds and trees in Brackenridge Park threatens Native American religious practice, a new federal lawsuit charges.

Greg Harman

A federal lawsuit filed yesterday alleges the City of San Antonio’s effort to evict migratory birds and remove trees in the headwaters of the San Antonio River at Brackenridge Park violates the First Amendment rights of Native American peoples to practice their religion.

The case, Gary Perez and Matilde Torres v. City of San Antonio, holds that the plaintiffs have informed City staff and elected leaders on numerous occasions that the headwaters of Brackenridge Park is the epicenter of their creation story and a redevelopment project approved by City Council last week is “compromising the Park’s spiritual ecology.”

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Both Perez and Torres spoke against the bond-funded project last week when Mayor Ron Nirenberg threatened to shut down the meeting in order to prevent additional testimony about ways the project could be modified to save more trees.

“On a half-dozen occasions, Plaintiffs asked the City to modify its renovation plans to preserve the ecology of the Park and Plaintiffs’ ability to worship within it, but the City rejected those requests,” the lawsuit states.

“Indeed, the City has never undertaken basic steps to see whether the proposed development of the Park could go ahead in a way that would preserve the cormorant’s presence or habitat.”

Matilde Torres speaking at City Council last week. Image: Greg Harman

Perez and Torres are represented by the prestigious Jones Day law firm, which is well known for its work on social justice matters, and attorneys with the Law & Religion Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, which specializes in cases believed to threaten religious liberty.

The lawsuit decries an aggressive City campaign that drove out a migratory bird rookery earlier this year in Brackenridge under a federal USDA permit that allows the targeting of cattle, snowy, and great egrets, as well as cormorants, in all San Antonio City Parks. The bird harrassment was part of the original bond project language, though the City later tried to detangle it from the tree removal.

Among the tools listed on the permit allowed to help drive out the birds are trucks, dogs, nest/egg removal, firearms/mylar balloons, drones, propane cannons, and other devices.

Although the permit covers the entire 16,237.5 acres of City parks property there has never been a single hearing on the practice since the destruction of a rookery at Elmendorf Lake Park on San Antonio’s Westside in 2019.

The cormorant is a bird with deep religious meaning for members of the Lipan-Apache “Hoosh Chetzel” Native American Church. The river, the trees, and the cormorant represent the underworld, middle world, and upperworld of creation, according to the creation story related by the lawsuit.

Here is Gary Perez speaking with Deceleration in February 2022 about the spiritual threat the City’s Brackenridge Park project represents:

“The presence and connection of these three worlds establishes a ‘spiritual ecology’ that enables Plaintiffs to identify themselves in the physical world and commune with the spiritual world,” the lawsuit continues.

“Harming any one of the connection points disturbs the sanctity of the Park and its capacity to function as a sacred space for Plaintiffs’ religious practice.”

Roughly 50 trees—six of a size qualifying as “heritage” trees—will be removed from the park pending final clearance by state and federal regulators under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. The first phase of the project includes repairs to the river wall, restoration of the Pump House, an outdoor performance area, and other history-celebrating park amenities intended to “tell the story of water in San Antonio.”

In addition to alleged First Amendment violations, Perez and Torres claim violations of their rights under the federal Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act and Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Texas Constitution.

Here is the lawsuit:


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