Clergy fear Alabama law imperils ministry


People from many faith communities participate in a June 25th march to stop Alabama’s HB56 immigration law.
A UMNS photo courtesy of Lyn Cosby.

The Rev. John Bailey fears that after Sept. 1 the most ordinary acts of ministry in Alabama could violate state law.

Sept. 1 is when Alabama’s new immigration enforcement law is scheduled to go into effect. Since the Alabama governor signed the law in June, thousands have participated in prayer vigils and, increasingly, leaders from different denominations have spoken out against the measure.

Four Christian leaders — including a United Methodist bishop — as individuals have joined in a federal lawsuit to try to stop the law. Both supporters and opponents of the Alabama law, HB56, have called it the toughest in country.

At issue for many faith leaders is the law’s provision that makes it a crime to knowingly “harbor” or “transport” immigrants who are not lawfully presentin the United States.

Bailey said the law hurts at least five ministries at Asbury United Methodist Church in Madison, near Huntsville, where he is director of missions. The congregation, with a weekly attendance of about 3,500, offers courses in English as a second language, vacation Bible school and an array of other services that help the poor, which include immigrants.

His church does not check an individual’s immigration status before offering ministry.

As Bailey reads the law, he could be arrested and his church van seized if he uses the van to transport families at his church that he knows may lack proper documentation.

His greatest fear is that the law jeopardizes evangelism and his ability to follow the biblical mandate to care for the stranger.

“It’s not uncommon for folks who are the alien to be in our community and in need,” he said. “My call is to minister to those who may need help finding jobs and may need help finding food, clothing, shelter (and) the basic needs of life. This law ties my hands and my ability to minister to them in the way I sense God is calling me to do it.”


A ‘message’ law

John Bailey. A UMNS web-only
photo courtesy of John Bailey.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 120,000 unauthorized immigrants resided in Alabama as of March 2010. About 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants live in the United States, Pew figures show. That represents less than 4 percent of the total U.S. population of 308.7 million.

Although the Alabama law has not yet taken effect, it is already having an impact, Bailey said.

Attendance has plummeted at a largely Hispanic United Methodist congregation his church supports. His church is also missing some people, and he suspects many immigrants — including those who are legally in the United States — are fleeing the state.

“It’s clearly a law with a message and the message has been received by Hispanics here that they are not welcome, and they are leaving,” Bailey said.

Danny Upton, a United Methodist attorney and native Alabaman, expects that at least some parts of the law will not withstand federal court scrutiny. Already judges have blocked provisions of other state immigration laws from taking effect.

Upton is the national program attorney for the United Methodist ministry Justice for Our Neighbors, which provides free, professional legal services at monthly clinics.

“My intuition tells me that the legislators who passed this knew it was going to be struck down (by courts),” said Upton, a member of Hazel Green (Ala.) United Methodist Church.“Why would you pass a law that you know is unconstitutional? Well, it’s all just political theater so you can point to it later on and say, ‘Look how tough I tried to be on these undocumented immigrants.’”


Church’s response

Laws in other states

Five states — Utah, Indiana, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina — this year passed laws modeled on the anti-illegal immigration law Arizona approved in 2010.

Like Arizona, the laws in these states include provisions that require law-enforcement officials to determine the immigration status of people involved in lawful stops and employers to use the federal program E-Verify to determine the work eligibility of applicants before hiring. These laws also allow state residents to sue state and local agencies for noncompliance with immigration.

But, Alabama’s law stands out even among these measures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization that serves legislatures and staffs in U.S. states and territories.

One section requires Alabama’s public elementary and secondary schools to determine whether any student enrolling is lawfully present and allows schools to report to federal authorities students and their parents who are presumed to be “unlawfully present.”

South Carolina law, which also bans knowingly transporting or harboring unauthorized immigrants, makes the exception for religious groups. But the Alabama law offers church no such exceptions.

Federal judges have blocked parts of the laws in Indiana and Georgia from taking effect, and the Utah law is now facing court challenges.

An Arizona federal district court and the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled that parts of the disputed Arizona law also usurp federal immigration enforcement efforts. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

“To make something a state law violation that the federal law does not treat as a violation is almost certainly not going to fly,” said Hans Christian Linnartz, who teaches immigration law at United Methodist-affiliated Duke University School of Law.

Linnartz used as an example a situation in which a state might criminalize unlawful presence in the United States.

“Under federal law, just being here without our government’s permission, is against the law but it’s only a violation of our civil administrative law,” he explained.

The U.S. Supreme Court historically has allowed states to aid the federal government’s immigration enforcement but not to pre-empt it, Linnartz said.

—Heather Hahn

More than 150 United Methodist clergy in Alabama signed a June 13 open letter sent to state government officials denouncing the law as unjust.

Bishop William H. Willimon of the North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference joined three other bishops from the state’s Episcopal and Roman Catholic dioceses in a federal court suit to stop the law.

The suit filed Aug. 1 argues that the law, if enforced, does “irreparable harm” to church members by making it a potential crime to be a Good Samaritan to an undocumented immigrant.

The Christian leaders’ lawsuit joins other litigation contesting HB56, including a suit by the U.S. Department of Justice. As it did in a similar suit last year in Arizona, the Justice Department contends that the Alabama law pre-empts federal authority to administer and enforce immigration laws. The lawsuits have been consolidated into one case, and the first hearing is set for Aug. 24.

Willimon said his objections to the law are “purely ecclesiastical. “He explained that no conference funds are going toward the suit’s expenses; an Alabama law firm is providing legal services pro bono.

“I am sure that Christians of goodwill may hold differing opinions about this law,” he said, “but I became convinced, after numerous discussions with our pastors and churches involved in mission work, as well as with legal experts and law-enforcement officials, that this law is poorly constructed and does more harm than any alleged good.”

Bishop Paul L. Leeland of the Alabama-West Florida Conference did not join in the lawsuit because he is on spiritual leave. He did join Willimon in decrying the law.

“HB56 violates the basic understanding of our Christian faith as the church is asked to serve in all ways to all people at all times,” Leeland said in a June 15 statement. “It is essential that we manifest the presence of Christ in the community regardless of a person’s status.”

However, the law does have its supporters in the church, Willimon acknowledged. One of the lawmakers who helped its passage is a retired United Methodist pastor.

State Rep. Mac Buttram, a Republican from Cullman, campaigned on enacting immigration reform in 2010 and voted for HB56 this summer.

His hope, he said, is that the law is “to get people who are here illegally out of the state so we can have more jobs for Alabamans, for those who want to come here legally.”

Whether unauthorized immigrants are actually taking away jobs is in dispute. Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, told National Public Radio about Georgia farmers who have not been able to get their fields harvested since the recent passage in that state of a tough immigration law.

Buttram said fears of church leaders about the law are unwarranted. He said there is still no requirement that churches check people’s immigration status before providing them with food, clothes or shelter.

To get into trouble, he said, “I would have to know a person is illegal and act with the intent of harboring them from detention or prosecution.”

There’s a problem, he said, if a congregation identifies itself as a sanctuary church for those not lawfully in the United States. “Then I am saying I am welcoming you and will do whatever I need to do to help you stay here,” Buttram said.


More than 160 people gather June 28 in Highlands United Methodist Church in Birmingham to share in worship, prayer and discussion about
Alabama’s immigration law.
A UMNS photo by Danette Clifton.

Who speaks for the church?

Only General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, can speak for The United Methodist Church. The church in its Social Principles, approved by General Conference, has called on the church and society “to recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all.”

The 2008 General Conference also urged the United States to reform immigration laws and make “family unity, students being able to get an education at an affordable rate, fair and just treatment of laborers and a reasonable path towards citizenship a priority.”

The laws in all of these states pose a challenge to the church, said Laurie Anderson, the new immigration grassroots coordinator for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. She is working with congregations to help recent immigrants and people with deep roots in the United States build relationships.

“We are all God’s children, and we don’t walk around asking for people’s papers,” she said. “I think if people had those relationships created, they wouldn’t be so quick to enact these laws that really do single out an oppressed group.”

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

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