Alabama churches unite to halt immigration law

In a rare move, three bishops from three different faiths have taken legal action to fight a new law that they believe will criminalize part of their ministry.

Details from the New York Times:

On a sofa in the hallway of his office here [in Cullman, Alabama], Mitchell Williams, the pastor of First United Methodist Church, announced that he was going to break the law. He is not the only church leader making such a declaration these days.

Since June, when Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, signed an immigration enforcement law called the toughest in the country by critics and supporters alike, the opposition has been vocal and unceasing.

Thousands of protesters have marched. Anxious farmers and contractors have personally confronted their lawmakers. The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups have sued, and have been backed by a list of groups including teachers’ unions and 16 foreign countries. Several county sheriffs, who will have to enforce parts of the new law, have filed affidavits supporting the legal challenges.

On Aug. 1, the Justice Department joined the fray, contending, as in a similar suit in Arizona, that the state law pre-empts federal authority to administer and enforce immigration laws.

And on that same day, three bishops sued.

An Episcopal bishop, a Methodist bishop and a Roman Catholic archbishop, all based in Alabama, sued on the basis that the new statute violated their right to free exercise of religion, arguing that it would “make it a crime to follow God’s command to be Good Samaritans.”

“The law,” said Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile, “attacks our core understanding of what it means to be a church.”

While church leaders have spoken out against similar laws elsewhere, Alabama is the only state where senior church leaders have gone so far in formal, organized opposition. But the law in Alabama, a state with an estimated 120,000 illegal immigrants, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, goes further than any other.

It contains some of the controversial provisions of other recent state laws, including one that empowers local law enforcement to try to ascertain immigration status after pulling people over for traffic violations.

But the law also makes it a crime to transport, harbor or rent property to people who are known to be in the country illegally, and it renders any contracts with illegal immigrants null.

To some church leaders — who say they will not be able to give people rides, invite them to worship services or perform marriages and baptisms — the law essentially criminalizes basic parts of Christian ministry.

Read more.

There’s additional information at the website for the Archdiocese of Mobile.


  1. naturgesetz says:

    It’s good that they are doing this. I just hope that they were as vocal and explicit in their objections while the bill was being considered in the legislature.

  2. deaconnorb says:

    I am not at all surprised that this has happened:

    –Back some time ago, before he was sacked by CNN, Rick Sanchez interviewed an Arizona Legislator who was at the heart of the drive to get their own Immigration Law passed. That legislator, on camera, said — in effect — that their law would be drastic enough to immediately stop any churches from interfering with its enforcement. I tried to get a transcript of that program to confirm what I had heard, but was never able to.

    –That led me to wonder if and when the Roman Catholic dioceses of Arizona might be going to court to challenge it. I am not sure that ever happened or maybe the law was changed before it was passed to avoid that church-state controversy.

    –This multi-church lawsuit, however, carries a lot more weight. It is not just a Catholic issue but a Christian one and the constituencies involved represent a significant segment of the voting population in Alabama.

    –I was also fascinated that the New York Times article left out the name of Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham who — according to the news release of the Archdiocese of Mobile — is also a party to the lawsuit. A lot of us in this area of the Midwest know Bishop Baker — he was born in Willard Ohio, was raised and went to school in Fostoria, Ohio. Both of these cities have large farm-worker populations who migrate up from the Rio Grande Valley area of Brownsville. I suspect a lot of his friends while growing up came from families in the migrant-stream.

    You know — I do not know the other three bishops but I really would not want to be on the opposite side of this controversy when Bishop Baker gets engaged.

  3. pagansister says:

    Having lived in that state many, many years as a child and part of my adult life (graduating from a state university there) I’m not surprised with the fact that the state passed the law. I was there during all the civil rights marches etc. Alabama really hasn’t come into the 21st century in more ways than one. I hope the law can be somehow overturned. It is outrageous.

  4. So I take it from the post and comments that the US should now have open borders to anyone who wants to come into the country and that benefits given to citizens should be granted to all who arrive?

    Last time I looked the Cathecism talked about the right of countries to have protected borders.
    “Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption”

    “Sovereign nations have a right to control their borders.
    Nations may regulate borders to provide for national security, tranquility and prosperity.”

    “It is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens and intermediate bodies. Human interdependence is increasing and gradually spreading throughout the world. The unity of the human family, embracing people who enjoy equal natural dignity, implies a universal common good. This good calls for an organization of the community of nations able to ‘provide for the different needs of men…this will involve the sphere of social life to which belong questions of food, hygiene, education,…and certain situations arising here and there, as for example…alleviating the miseries of refugees dispersed throughout the world, and assisting migrants and their families.”

    The USA needs to make sure that the people of this country have their rights including the right to the pursuit of happiness which must include the ability to work for a fair wage. The influx of millions of illegal and mostly uneducated people without the ability to speak the language who will work for cheap wages takes jobs away from those in this country and lowers overall wages based on the law of supply and demand. We have an immigration policy and the congress has increased this very dramatically over the years. In addition, the USA is one of the greatest providers of assistance to other nations around the world and has been for years.

    One of the jobs of our politicians is to fill the needs of the country and this includes bringing into the country those which can help make America ever better allowing it to do more for the world. If we need to have millions of poor uneducated people who cannot speak the language, let them pass laws which takes these people in and do it legally. Allowing those who have taken an oath to defend the country to look the other way as millions pour across our borders year after year makes no sense. Why have any laws at all if we are going to allow some of them to be widely ignored. Everyone knows that continuing to allow our immigration laws to be broken also allows employers to abuse the entire process by not paying fair wages, having taxes withheld, or enforcing safety. The bishops should be protesting the loss of jobs, the lowering of wages, and the abuse of the system by the politicians and not worrying about supporting those who are breaking the current laws. I seriously doubt you will see a single priest arrested for giving an illegal immigrant a ride or a hand out. This lawsuit should be thrown out and the leadership of the church should stop their bishops from this type of activity supporting the breaking of the laws of the country.

  5. Deacon Greg Kandra says:


    The clergymen are suing to stop this law because they fear it will prevent them from doing the work of the Church — weddings, baptisms, even just offering someone a ride so that undocumented aliens can get to church. All of those acts could be defined by this law as harboring and supporting criminals.

    The bishops say the language is too broad and vague and could leave them open to arrest for doing their ministry. The lawmakers, of course, insist that’s not true, and that the church isn’t being targeted. Are you willing to believe that? Are you willing to trust that the government won’t crack down on religious institutions if it wants to?

    I’m not.

    Dcn. G.

  6. deaconnorb says:

    Back to my comments about Arizona:

    This issue that the Arizona Legislator raised on Rick Sanchez’ CNN show was the fifteen-century old concept of “sanctuary.”

    –Way back in the early Middle Ages, the churches at that time had absolute protection from civil-secular infringement on the churches’ right to provide food, shelter, protection and even employment to those being persecuted by the local governments. No exceptions at all. If the local church authority wanted to offer “sanctuary” to someone, that protection could not be violated ever.

    –No secular authority, military or civilian, was ever allowed to enter church property without permission; they were never allowed to arrest anyone who was located on church property — whether that be a cleric or a lay-person.

    Now, to a great extent, that fifteen-century traditional custom still is in place. No uniformed police officer or uniformed military personnel are ever allowed on the premises of a church without permission — particularly if they are armed.

    This is not usually an issue to individual members of the military services when they are attending scheduled masses and other Sunday ceremonies, partly because individual member of the military on their own time are never armed. In fact, many churches regularly invite — and often publicly recognize — uniformed military personnel to Sunday Masses and services.

    That idea of “sanctuary” has also affected certain rather innocent customs that have developed around the ceremonial use of swords and sabres. In many dioceses, Knights of Columbus representatives are still encouraged to escort the local bishop but they may not bring their swords into the ceremony. The “sabre-arch,” fairly common still at the weddings of military officers, must be OUTSIDE of the church proper. These are all spin-offs of that issue of “sanctuary.”

    Back to the Arizona issue. That law, as it was proposed by that legislator, would void any use of “sanctuary” when it came to protecting immigrants from either federal or local authorities. In essence, it would allow unformed police officers to enter church facilities without permission — or even a court order — to arrest and detain anyone they wanted to.

    Rumor had it that one of the non-Catholic but fairly liberal churches in Arizona had already developed a process for assisting undocumented folks and part of that process was a homeless shelter which was to be declared a formal “sanctuary.” Not sure what ever became of that idea.

  7. The Church should also be suing the federal government for the Reproductive Health Care law that infringes of the religious freedom of health care providers by forcing them to provide birth control. It should also be suing the federal government for the mandatory Health Care Plan that provides for abortion, death panels and forces every one to pay for it with their tax dollars. It should sue the State of New York for the “gay marriage”, etc., etc. Just for congruence’s sake.

  8. Greta raises questions that go beyond the issues raised in this particular lawsuit, which is (necessarily) focused on the potential harm the Alabama law may do to the free exercise of religion. That is an important issue, but in the overall immigration debate, it is a side issue.

    For many Anglo Catholics, the big issue raised by Latino immigration is our Church’s position on the rule of law. As Greta notes, Catholics are supposed to support the right of governments to control their borders, so how can we justify harboring fellow Catholics who are defying American immigration laws? The simple answer is that when human law and natural law conflict (as they do, for example, on abortion), natural law wins out. America’s current immigration laws conflict with the natural law that allows people who cannot earn a living in their own counties to cross borders in search of work.

    Archbishop Gomez explained that clearly in his recent address to the Knights of Colombus:

    The human right to life, the foundation of every other right, implies the natural right to emigrate. Because in order for you and your family to live a life worthy of your God-given dignity, certain things are required. At minimum: food, shelter, clothing, and the means to make a decent living.

    “Our broken immigration system,” Archbishop Gomez explained, did not provide a means for Latinos to come here in search of the work that was available to them, nor does it provide any way for those who are here to legalize their status. The solution to that problem is not to punish those who broke the law or drive them away, as Alabama and several other states have set out to do. The solution is to fix the system through comprehensive immigration reform and thereby allow these hard-working people a chance to come out of the shadows and set out on a path to citizenship.

  9. I find it interesting that the very people who protest government intervention in their lives, who want to get government off their backs and make government “inconsequential” (an unfortunate use of the word by a recently declared candidate for the presidency) will back a law like this.

    In many cases, the church groups who are protesting this law in Alabama are the primary providers of services and programs that help undocumented people learn English, get an education, find jobs, and become citizens.

  10. Best of luck to the churches and the leadership that has stepped out in filing this suit. I can only wish more churches in that state would join in, as this issue cuts across denominational boundaries.

    There has been much press of late regarding how the expansion of rights for LGBT persons may affect freedom of religious practice for Christian churches. Here we have a real example of how government law can curtail the rights of churches and believers. I wonder…will those who speak out against LGBT rights on these grounds join in the fight, or will they side with the government (and their political party) against the church?

  11. I’ve read some articles on this lawsuit and others that have been filed against the immigration law. It does seem that a number of Christian churches and groups, including some from the conservative side of the faith, have joined in to contest the scope of the law. As written it definitely can be interpreted to infringe on the ministry of a church or religious institution, in spite of legislators’ protestations to the contrary.

  12. Deacon Greg,

    I think whoever is giving the church leaders legal and PR advice is doing a very poor job.

    Point 1. The use of the term “undocumented alien” should never be used when the person knowingly knew and broke the laws of this country and who continue to pile on more violations of laws each day for example with the use of forged papers.

    Point 2. If they harbor a known criminal such as a bank robber, and the robber later kills someone, I would believe they are guilty of a crime even without this law. Just because you think the law is not correct does not give you the right to harbor those guilty of the crime unless you are willing to go to jail.

    Point 3. The church is protected at this time in the sacrament of confession. Should this lawsuit go forward and they lose, might they be risking the loss of the protection for the sacrament of confession? I wonder how much they have thought this through.

    Point 4. Since we have had decades of lawsuits over the protection of criminal abusive priests costing the church the moral bully pulpit, seems like fighting to be able to hide or harbor others guilty of crimes does not make legal or PR sense. If a priest harbors an illegl immigrant and they then rob or kill someone, isn’t the priest guilty as well?

    Rudy 7 is correct in his post. If they are going to sue, do it to protect life, not to harbor criminals.

    ron chandonia, You go right past the fact that over the past couple decades, the congress has dramatically increased the numbers of immigrants we allow. They also do not count the families of immigrants in those numbers. You seem to ignore the fact that we are having huge problems with employment in this country today and that many jobs have been taken over by those here illegally. The influx of huge numbers of illigal people undercuts the entire country and our laws. We cannot take in the world and survive which is why a country has immigration laws to allow the protection of the people and to allow time to assimilate. As i stated but you failed to acknowledge is that the USA spends billions each year helping out other countries with both government and private donations. Yes, we have a need to help others, but what was the last time anyone allowed their own children to starve to feed the neighbor? Out government has created this mess by not enforcing existing immigration laws and it must do so before we go any further or we will soon not have a country. Remember, Reagan was sold on allowing a path to citizenship and both parties then promised to secure the borders so it would not happen again. We do not have an obligation to feed and cloth the world. There is also an argument that we would be better off finding other solutions than bringing the poor within our borders.

    HMS says “I find it interesting that the very people who protest government intervention in their lives, who want to get government off their backs and make government “inconsequential” (an unfortunate use of the word by a recently declared candidate for the presidency) will back a law like this.”

    The federal government has one main function and that is to protect the citizens of this country. While they have been failing to protect our borders, they have been working to drown the citizens in regulations and killing jobs. If you do not understand the difference between the actual role of the federal government in the constitution, then try reading it closely. Obamacare, how much water our toilet flushes, the protection of some rodent that results in lost jobs, the lawsuits that kill our ability to compete, and many more infringements should go away while they do what they are supposed to do for our national defense and border protection.

    Richard Johnson, giving gays special rights and then forcing everyone to follow the lie is an example of a federal government gone astray. Get back to protecting the borders, a clear federal responsibility.

    To all, I would be amazed if they would do much of anything to a priest helping some illegal person if no harm was done. Fighting in court for the right to harbor criminals makes little sense.

  13. deaconnorb says:

    Re: Greta #12

    “You seem to ignore the fact that we are having huge problems with employment in this country today and that many jobs have been taken over by those here illegally.”

    Let me see here:

    –ICE — agents of “Immigration Control and Enforcement” — hit a business in our town about a year or so ago. It was a unit of a small chain of Mexican-American restaurants. The owner is a legal US citizen of Mexican American heritage. He was hiring “undocumented workers” not only because of his cultural heritage (Mexican-Americans always look out for each other) but because no “Anglo” ever wanted to work for him. Being bi-lingual was an absolute and enforceable employment requirement; being “Latino” was not.

    –FLOC — the Farm Laborers Organizing Committee which Cesar Chavez organized in California’s Central Valley — sometime in the past year advertised nationally for farm-workers. No biases nor prejudices: if an “Anglo” really wanted to work hard like the “Latinos,” the, by all means, sign-up and we’ll put you to work. To my knowledge, no one ever did.

    –North Carolina is a “right-to-work” state. Union membership cannot be an employment requirement anywhere in the state. In fact, the Democratic Party (long an advocate for Unions) took a surprising amount of heat because its 2012 National Convention is scheduled for Charlotte. North Carolina is also a major center for the processing of chickens. This is nasty and hard work in a bone-numbing chilled environment. Not surprisingly, the employment force of those factories is 90%+ cultural minorities and the vast majority of them are “Latino.” These facilities do have high turnover (working in the cold gets real old after a while) and thus have a lot of regular openings but — for some reason — not a lot of “Anglos” apply.

    –On a more personal note. I have a high maintenance yard with flower beds that my wife and I enjoy but are getting a bit too old to do a lot of the work ourselves. This past summer, we invited two small businesses to help us clean out a lot of overgrown bushes and trees and replant an attractive setting. Both were “Anglo” owned and staffed. Neither of them even bothered to give us a return call or a bid. Next spring, I think we will contact a Catholic Hispanic deacon in our area and have him get us a team of folks who would be eager for the work.

  14. Greta:

    I understand your concerns about enforcement of the law and immigration reform and I agree but…
    there are persons involved here and many are being used and exploited. We desperately need immigrant workers and over the years, especially in the Southwest and California (wine industry), have practically begged for impoverished workers from Mexico and Central America to come and then made it difficult for them to avoid exploitation. I remember Cesar Chavez and the fight to unionize the farm workers in California. It was probably the last time that I saw both conservative and liberal Catholics agreed on an issue. Both Twin Circle and NCR had editorials supporting Chavez and defending the workers. (How do I know? Because my father had every Catholic periodical you can imagine in our house.)

    One summer in the 1970’s I took a group of college students to work with migrant workers, who were picking peaches in South Carolina. The migrants had just come from Florida where they had picked oranges, etc. and would eventually make their way to New York State for the apple-picking season.

    We were volunteers in a health clinic since the students were in the nursing program. The living conditions of the migrants were atrocious. Many had children with them. They needed inoculations and had all sorts of childhood illnesses. What kind of education they received I’ll never know, although I do know of some groups who tried to set up educational programs for the children.

    Were they working in the U.S. legally? I don’t know. It was not an issue for us. But one thing I do know, they were a necessary part of our economy.

    So, who cares about them? Certainly not business leaders or government officials. It’s religious and humanitarian groups who care.

  15. deaconnorb and hms, I have not said anything about how hard illegal immigrants work or anything else. I note neither of you commented on the huge increase in the number of legal immigrants and their families we have added to the limit in the last 10 years or so. There is a process to go through to increase the number of legal immigrants. If there is a huge need, the businesses should make the case to their representative to increase the number more if they cannot find workers here willing and able to do the work. I would suggest if we did not continue to expand the number of weeks one can obtain unemployment benefits in this country, a lot more would be willing to take the jobs that are out there and work to keep those jobs. What we cannot afford in the huge numbers here who are getting massive benefits given to them after they break our laws.

    With the examples of ICE, FLOC etc above, I would suggest that those places who are hiring should pay a living wage and have work conditions that are favorable to workers in this country. We pay dirt prices for things like eggs and raising the prices some to pay living wages should not be a huge problem. And on the gardening problem, we have a company come out and take care of the yard as we are also now in our 70′s with some disabilities. When I talked with the company who does the work about the fact that almost all the workers are clearly mexican and cannot speak the language, he told me that the company went that direction to allow higher profits paying lower wages and fewer benefits and this allowed them to hold down any cost increases. I promptly fired him and his company and reported them. Rather than give someone unemployment or other forms of welfare, I would say there is a list of jobs that they can go to so they can earn their way while they look for better jobs. There is dignity in work not found in getting a government check for doing nothing. What ever happened to workfare..

    However, the issue is with these bishops suing our government to allow them to provide services for those here illegally. I have an issue with that and believe it will bite us who give to the Catholic Church when we are suddenly responsible for these people we are aiding in their illegal choices.

  16. Greta #15: “I note neither of you commented on the huge increase in the number of legal immigrants and their families we have added to the limit in the last 10 years or so.”

    Perhaps one reason they did not comment on it is because it isn’t happening.

    Table #1 lists the number of people obtaining legal permanent residence status from 1820 to 2010. During the time period you have mentioned (“the last 10 years or so”) we see the following trend.

    2001 1,058,902
    2002 1,059,356
    2003 703,542
    2004 957,883
    2005 1,122,257
    2006 1,266,129
    2007 1,052,415
    2008 1,107,126
    2009 1,130,818
    2010 1,042,625

    As you see, we are approving the same number of permanent resident applications in 2010 as we did in 2001, with only slight variations. We had a significant drop in 2003 and 2004, likely due to changes in the immigration law pushed through the GOP congress and signed by Bush, but then changed at the behest of business interests in late 2004.

    So it is a myth that there has been a huge increase in legal immigration over the past ten years. The level has been fairly constant, save for two years when there was a drop.

    That might explain why the Deacon and others did not comment on your assertion.

  17. Greta #15: “With the examples of ICE, FLOC etc above, I would suggest that those places who are hiring should pay a living wage and have work conditions that are favorable to workers in this country. We pay dirt prices for things like eggs and raising the prices some to pay living wages should not be a huge problem.”

    Perhaps you would join those of us who are petitioning Congress for laws to better govern the living conditions of workers, both native and immigrant.

    “Today’s form of slavery does not bear the overt nature of pre-Civil War society, but it is none the less heinous and reprehensible,” Collier County Sheriff’s Detective Charlie Frost told Democratic members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee. No Republicans attending the hearing.”

    That last sentence is worth repeating.

    “No Republicans attending the hearing.”

    Greta, would you care to join me in contacting legislators about this?

  18. Greta #15: “However, the issue is with these bishops suing our government to allow them to provide services for those here illegally. I have an issue with that and believe it will bite us who give to the Catholic Church when we are suddenly responsible for these people we are aiding in their illegal choices.”

    Matthew 25:31-46

    “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

    “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

    “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

    “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

    “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

    “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

    “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

    “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

    Who should the Church answer to, Greta: man or God?

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