On April 25, 2012, the US Supreme Court heard oral argument on legal challenges to Arizona’s immigration law. Under SB 1070, police officers must determine an individual’s immigration status during a lawful stop, which some have concluded is a recipe for racial profiling. Those found to be without proof of legal presence face arrest and state criminal charges.
While supporters and opponents rush to opine on the civil rights implications of the court’s decision, few appreciate the serious risks to church autonomy and people of conscience. Church leaders and their congregations may be joining the cells of the undocumented immigrants they feed and clothe as required by their faith. Indeed, Arizona, as well as other states, has a long history of providing sanctuary – especially during the wars in Central America and the genocide in Guatemala – to immigrants, many of whom were undocumented. At its peak, the sanctuary movement involved over 500 congregations across the country. Various denominations took on this obligation, including the Lutherans, United Church of Christ, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Jews, Unitarian Universalists, Quakers and Mennonites.
When it comes to the impact of SB 1070, the public, and churchgoers in particular, have failed to recognize the sweeping adverse impact on the autonomy of churches and the liberty of their membership. Arizona’s SB 1070 – and copycat laws in 15 states – not only threaten criminal prosecution, but also interfere with religious tenets to provide food and shelter to those in need. SB 1070 makes such efforts illegal. Even worse, it obligates state officials to prosecute or face suit by any person for failing to enforce the law.
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Specifically, Section 5 of SB 1070 prohibits a person from concealing, harboring, shielding or attempting to assist an undocumented immigrant, which arguably means providing humanitarian aid is prohibited. Such persons are subject to prosecution by the state and face imprisonment. Section 5 endangers church leaders in their independent determination to serve their communities. If upheld, Sections 2 and 5 permit the state – and anyone else, for that matter – to insist that officials unduly inquire into effectively legal church functions. (Sanctuary activists were considered by the Reagan administration to be defying US policy, but they ultimately saw great success in halting US prosecutions after 16 religious activists in Arizona not only received no jail time when they were found guilty of smuggling “aliens,” but also turned their trial into a PR campaign against the United States’ role in the Central American conflicts and its poor treatment of refugees.)
As most of us know, churches and other communities of faith have historically played an important role in providing humanitarian aid to those in need, and they have done so under fundamental American principles of religious freedom and church autonomy. It is that role, dating back to the courageous efforts of the abolitionists of the Civil War era, that has shaped the moral fiber of our country.
Indeed, some Christian leaders have argued SB 1070 interferes with their mission and the function of churches. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service were so concerned that they filed “friend of the court,” or amicus, briefs opposing the anti-immigrant law. The National Council of Churches also criticized the law, highlighting that it ran counter to centuries of biblical teachings regarding justice and neighborliness. Despite this noted activism, many Christians and other communities of faith have been notably reticent in this debate.
Even if the high court injudiciously upholds SB 1070, church leaders and their members should think long and hard about how history will view their action or inaction. Will they shut the doors of the church to the poor, or will they act in accordance with their faith?
In the end, SB 1070 imposes on people of conscience the false choice between following the law or following their consciences. Any law that makes the two mutually exclusive should be struck down as an affront to American values.