The logic for South Carolina Republicans is simple. They are afraid of refugees — full-gonzo terrified in a spineless, flailing panic. And yet church groups in the state are doing what church groups have done for most of the past century: Sponsoring and assisting and welcoming refugees. Therefore, South Carolina Republicans are going after those churches: “South Carolina Wants Faith Groups to Be Liable if Refugees They Support Commit a Crime.”
Republican lawmakers in South Carolina have tried hard to set an example of inhospitality and craven selfishness. “We’ve got to choose our own citizens over those who are not citizens of our country,” said state Sen. Kevin Bryant. But failing by example and preaching the virtues of viciousness haven’t been enough to convince everyone in South Carolina to turn their backs on desperate families fleeing horrific violence.
So now Bryant and his Republican colleagues hope to force others to comply by threatening them with legal and financial punishments for practicing hospitality.
The bill, which passed by the South Carolina state senate this week in a 39-6 vote, is split into two sections. The first would require the “sponsor” of a refugee — or the group helping them resettle in the state — to register them in database operated by the South Carolina Department of Social Services and available only to law enforcement. But it’s the second provision that has Palmetto State faith leaders particularly up in arms: the proposed law would make sponsors — most of whom are religious institutions — legally liable for any and all crimes committed by the refugee.
“A refugee’s sponsor shall be strictly liable to a person if…the refugee acted in a reckless, willful, or grossly negligent manner, committed an act of terrorism as defined by Section 16-23-710(18), or committed one of the violent crimes defined in Section 16-1-60, that resulted in physical harm or injury to a person or damage to or theft of real or personal property,” the bill reads.
As Sarah Posner explains, this “strict liability” provision is both sweeping and vague:
[The bill] would hold any refugee sponsor strictly liable if the refugee at some point in the future “acted in a reckless, willful, or grossly negligent manner, committed an act of terrorism” or a violent crime “that resulted in physical harm or injury to a person or damage to or theft of real or personal property.” They would be required under the bill to pay civil damages to anyone injured by such an act, apparently committed at any time in the future, by a refugee. … The adoption of the strict liability standard, which would impose liability without a finding of fault, has alarmed refugee advocates, who also say it is unclear whether churches who co-sponsor a refugee would be held liable under the bill.
The word “unclear” there doesn’t refer to any ambiguity about the bill’s content, intent, effect or implications. When they “say it is unclear whether churches who co-sponsor a refugee would be held liable,” what they’re saying is that these cowardly assholes in the South Carolina GOP couldn’t really possibly mean what they’re saying, could they?
Alas, this is not actually unclear. They do mean it. They are voting for it. And Republican Gov. Nikki Haley is likely to sign it into law. Even worse, anti-refugee, anti-immigrant Republicans in other states are already looking to this bill as a model, considering similar legislation in their states as well.
Churches and church-based refugee-sponsorship agencies are, understandably, denouncing this bill. They know refugees, so they’re not worried that these desperate families seeking a new, safer life are going to suddenly start going on violent rampages for which their sponsors will be held criminally and legally liable. And unlike the panicky anti-refugee Republican legislators, they know that refugees face an intense, in-depth screening process that takes years — so they’re not stupidly worried that terrorists are trying to sneak into America by posing as refugees.
But that’s not the point. This liability provision isn’t mainly about actual penalties, but about the threat of penalties. It’s an open-ended threat meant to intimidate churches and other would-be sponsors into turning their backs on refugees. If any of those refugees, ever, at any time in the future, commits a violent crime, or is accused of a violent crime, or of negligence, then that might be the end of your church.
That threat never actually needs to be carried out to have a big effect on reducing the number of churches or other groups willing to sacrifice their time and resources to resettle refugees.
“I fear this may be the start of similar nationwide legislation,” said Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief, an evangelical humanitarian nonprofit group that helps resettle refugees who have been vetted and approved under a federal program run by the State Department.
… Yang called the bill “wrongheaded,” “grotesque” and “anti-faith” and said World Relief worries that if passed, the bill would “infringe on our ability to carry out our mission, which is a matter of carrying out our faith and practicing our religion, to help people who are vulnerable.”
World Relief is an evangelical para-church group, but they’re not a bunch of religious-right culture-war fundraisers prone to this kind of language. They don’t use words like “grotesque” and “anti-faith” lightly. They’re using them, in this case, because they are accurate and necessary. This is a bill that is designed and intended to threaten churches with criminal and financial penalties.
This is an anti-faith, anti-church bill being sponsored, championed and passed by the very sort of South Carolina Republican lawmakers who posture as good, godly defenders of church and faith and family. Jack Jenkins underscores that irony:
All of the bill’s sponsors are Republicans, and all claim to be various flavors of evangelical or conservative Christians. … Yet the bill stands in stark contrast to the position of numerous influential theological conservatives: in December, a group of more than 100 evangelical Christian leaders signed a declaration calling for churches to embrace Syrian refugees, arguing that, “as Christians, we must care sacrificially for the refugee, the foreigner, and the stranger.” Signers included … two pastors from South Carolina … as well as the Urban Resource Coordinator for the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary — where State Senator Lee Bright, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, is said to serve on the Board of Visitors.
The current wave of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee sentiment in the Republican Party exposes the hypocrisy of the vapid “religious liberty” sloganeering that has arisen in recent years. Here is a piece of legislation that deliberately threatens the religious liberty of churches and church groups in South Carolina, but it doesn’t fit into the partisan myth-making that slogan was designed to promote. Hucksters of imaginary persecution — people like Todd Starnes or the various other Hobby Lobbyists — are going to find it hard to continue milking that shtick as anti-immigrant and anti-refugee Republican lawmakers get more aggressive in trying to tell refugee-sponsoring churches what they’re not allowed to do.
The [South Carolina] debate is the latest in an increasingly contentious national standoff between Republican lawmakers who oppose the resettlement of Syrian refugees and faith-based groups that are both deeply supportive of their plight and often tasked with the work of helping them build a new life in the United States. In November, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to “refuse to cooperate” with religious organizations that settle refugees in the Lone Star State, but most of the faith groups vowed to defy him and settle them anyway.
We’re going to be seeing more and more of that clash: Anti-immigrant Republican lawmakers vs. faith-based groups sponsoring refugees. Republicans vs. Southern Baptists. Republicans vs. white evangelicals. Republicans vs. Catholics. (And Republicans vs. main line Protestants, too, although that’s not a new development.)
These church groups — including many white evangelicals and Southern Baptists — have been involved with refugee sponsorship for a long time and they take it seriously. Before World Relief emerged as an evangelical alternative, many evangelical and fundamentalist churches who might otherwise have had nothing to do with the ecumenical denominations of the National Council of Churches were willing to set that aside to work with Church World Service. I went to school with fundie kids — like, Bob Jones fundie — who participated in CROP walks for CWS. The fundamentalist Baptist church I grew up attending sponsored, housed, and furnished refugee families and that was a point of pride, not of controversy. Thousands of Southern Baptist congregations have long supported refugee resettlement as a necessary corollary to their support for international missions (“the mission field is coming to us”).
Refugee resettlement, of course, is not exclusively the work of church groups. Those agencies — World Relief and Lutheran Services Carolinas in particular — are doing most of the heavy lifting in South Carolina, and thus bear most of the brunt of S.C. Republicans’ anti-refugee legislation. But anybody — secular, religious, whatever — can do this work. Refugees can be sponsored and supported by Rotary clubs or Girl Scout troops, by local businesses, or unions, or Facebook friends. Hospitality and neighborliness is not a sectarian practice.
Increasingly, though, hospitality and neighborliness are becoming a partisan practice. And that’s not a healthy development.