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Clergy fear Alabama law imperils ministry


3:00 P.M. EDT August 18, 2011

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.
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.
View in Photo Gallery

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.”

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

A ‘message’ law

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

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.
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. View in Photo Gallery

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.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Showing 20 comments

  • Douglas 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    When an organization becomes involved in this manner the organization places itself in a position of losing its tax- exempt status.  When people are encouraged to take a stand against scripture (Romans 13) those propogating that stand also align themselves against the Word of God.  While I understand what some members of the UMC are saying about injustice, I also hear the cries from the other side of the aisle screaming for justice for needy American CITIZENS. There are, I believe, more UMC members who decry a stand favoring those who are law breakers willfully and wantingly.  If we align ourselves with lawbreakers of immigration law we must then align ourselves with all lawbreakers and thereby become what kind of representative to the World of the Kingdom?
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  • Thom Ashton 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    I moved to Ohio from Georgia last year and needed to get a Ohio drivers license. Even though I was born here in Ohio (many years ago) I had to prove that I am a U.S. citizen, by having my old Georgia license and using birth certificate and social security card. If this war veteran has to prove his citizenship, then the illegal alien's in this country need to go. Many say that no one will be around to pick the fruits and veggies, I say have those collecting unemployment be mandated to work the fields( same pay the illegal's get), and all others who are on some type of government cheese program.
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  • Doug Mackey 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    The real issue here is the NEED FOR REFORM in immigration, and whether you feel the church should be concerned about current "illegal" immigration or not, I hope that everyone - as Christians - is aware of the need for reforms.  Many of those who are here illegally would gladly have come in legally, if there had been a mechanism in place.  And many others came as children and have never known any other country - yet are still considered "Illegal".  For them I think we should support the DREAM act without  questions.  

    As for how the church treats those that are already here  - remember the importance of resident aliens throughout scripture - time and again we are told to seek justice and fair treatment for them as well.  As followers of Christ we have a responsibility to insure that no one goes hungry, or is treated poorly, no matter who they are or why they are here.  Would those of you that oppose this stand suggest that these churches simply close their doors to anyone without proper identification?  Should a church be in the business of asking for your papers before offering any assistance?  Or should we be be following Jesus and be a hand to help all in need?For those who take an extreme legalistic approach - remember who the "enemies" of Christ were - specifically the Sadducees, Pharisees and Romans - all those that insisted on adhering to Worldly Laws, even if they did not help in bringing the Kingdom of God into being - rather than following the two Commandments Jesus put forth as the most important - Love your God, Love each other. I came across an interesting image earlier today that I would like to share - http://www.thegodarticle.com/1...
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  • ddodd86 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    I understand the position of the UMC, but I do not agree in this case. Illegal immigrants are people too, but they are not American citizens, obviously, because they are here illegally. There is a lot more to this case than simply providing clothing and shelter to the illegals. I'm appalled that the Church can't see the bigger picture here and are just focusing on the ministries at their church that will be affected by this law and have prayed that the law will not pass. There are millions of Americans who are homeless and seeking for direction that need our church's help. It scares me when liberal ideology slips into our church's way of thinking...
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  • PRAYERWARRIOR2 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    I too must take a stand on the side of our country's Constitution and the Laws of this great country. We can NOT cherry pick what laws we want to obey. That is breaking the law.  We also, if we want to keep a growing United Methodist Church, with the needed money to support it, can NOT openly champion doing this, USING THE BANNERS AND WEBSITES OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH, BOTH LOCALLY AND NATIONALLY. This action and several other ultra liberal causes has my family rethinking our financial and physical support. Isn't that what we are doing when these people march and give speeches, with The United Methodist Church banners/symbols placed with these actions? Tread lightly, fellow Methodists, or we will shrink our members like never before, at a time that we can not afford to do that.
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  • Fatman 2 comments collapsed Collapse Expand
    Harboring a criminal has always been against the law.  So is aiding and abetting a criminal that is trying to allude the police.  Both of these apply and have been the law for over 100 years.  I don't see how this new law deviates from that at all.  Illegal aliens (whether you want to call them illegal or undocumented) are hurting this country and causing a drain on our public services, welfare, medicaid, law enforcement, you name it.  It's got to stop.
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  • Steve Lee 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    I'm not a lawyer, but my understanding is that people who are here illegally have broken civil law, not criminal law, so they are not considered to be criminals, for legal purposes.

    Many of these state laws seem iffy on constitutional grounds, in that they usurp federal jurisdiction and criminalize activities that are civil matters. The Alabama law, unlike South Carolina's, goes further by criminalizing normal and usual activities of churches.

    What I don't know is whether it is a criminal matter to hire those who are here illegally. I don't know of any CEOs who are rotting in jail because their companies hire undocumented workers, so either it is not criminal law, or nobody bothers to enforce it.Also your point about the drain on our economy is at the very least debatable. People can cite plenty of statistics on both sides. Do the illegal immigrants bring more economic benefits or liabilities to our society? The best answer seems to be "it depends."
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  • HHH_AAA 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    The United Methodist Church has taken a stand on many issues that have to do with the well being of the oppressed around the world - in many cases speaking against laws in place that were unfair in practice. Perhaps this debate is so uncomfortable to many within our denomination in the US because it speaks about the evils embodying right here at home. It is very easy to speak in favor of the oppressed in the other side of the world, but not that easy when that one being oppressed is your neighbor, who happens to be different from you. I pray for all parties involved in this debate so that God can show us how God's kingdom should look like in our nation. I have taken the time to get to know a lot of this folks, and as hear their stories, see how hard they work, and how much they are contributing to my community - to realize, that they are doing something I WOULD ALSO DO FOR THE SAKE OF MY CHILDREN, if it needed to be. I guess the same people that would not change their music preference so their grandchildren find a place in church, are the same ones would let them die before crossing across a border. Please, this debate it is about much more than money and laws.
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  • Neville Vanderburg 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    Illegal immigrants are not an "oppressed group" and it just amazes me that our General Board would take such a position. Their actions hurt the thousands of legal immigrants who choose to follow the law, enter the country legally, and follow the established path to citizenship. I think their actions are an affront to the thousands of immigrants that came through Ellis Island and were willing to do whatever it took to become an American. Illegal immigrants are cheaters on that system and we do nobody a favor when we encourage them to skirt the rules and, once here, begin to support them, defend them, and encourage them to stay. The victim in the story of the Good Samaritan was viciously set upon by robbers and then ignored by the passers by. The illegal immigrant is not a "victim" of anything but his/her own willingness to break the law. I think our efforts should be focused on their home countries and helping them improve their standard of living so that their citizens don't have to flee in search of a better life.
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  • RobinElisa 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    I am taking a stand for our country and it's laws. The Church's stand against the laws that protect the safety and economic structure of our country is the reason I am no longer attending a United Methodist Church.
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  • history01 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    I feel that the church should be the church in ministry to all God's people.  We cannot allow the government to disallow the call of United Methodist Churches who minister to undocumented persons.  If they do the state is attacking the church's religious rights as stated in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America. This attack of the church's constitutional rights has been used to open homeless shelters, soup kitchens, food pantries, and health centers with AIDS and HIV treatment open to all.  When the state tries to regulate any group that acts from a religious conviction the state is in violation of our constitutional rights.
    Ken Bitler, United Methodist Pastor visiting the South Trinidad Circuit of the Methodist Church of the Caribbean and the Americas
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  • crodenberg 2 comments collapsed Collapse Expand
    The United States was formed by legal immigrants who were screened to admit only healthy persons plus criminals who were sent to the southern states. The problem with the church supporting illegal immigrants violates our immigration policy and causes problems with many of our members who do not support the cost to the nation to support illegal immigrants.
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  • Steve Lee 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    What a silly post! I don't think the Native Americans screened any of my ancestors when they came here. They didn't even try to teach them their language.

    I guess the Africans who were brought here were screened by the conditions on the ships, so that those who survived the trip had to be rather fit.

    I realize that in later centuries we set up Ellis Island and the like. That was back when we had immigration law that worked somewhat better than our current broken system. I certainly would advocate immigration reform that gave workable paths to legal immigration. It would be hard to argue in favor of what we have now.

    While that doesn't excuse those who don't come here through proper legal channels, neither does their immigration status excuse us from the demands of the Gospel to welcome the stranger, feed the poor, minister to the least and last and lost.

    Politicians will always pass laws that pander to the lowest instincts of human nature, so that's no surprise.
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  • NMex 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    I won't argue whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay or not because that is not what this article seems to be about. The good pastor worries about his ministry being impacted?  Just because the people he has ministered to may no longer be in the US is it possible that the good pastor could reach out to where they now live and make life better for them in their own country?  Surely this would not be an obstacle to God's people. But I suspect there is more involved here and that is a liberal agenda and using the illegal immigrants as pawns for social engineering and righting perceived wrongs with this country and people like me.
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  • NMex 5 comments collapsed Collapse Expand
    There is a passage in the Bible that talks about obeying the civil authorities because God put them in their positions.  So if those civil authorities come up with a law then it seems like we are supposed to obey the law.  It would be an affront to God to deride the civil authorities that came up with the law and to just ignore it.  I don't agree with many of the laws on the books but obey them as best as possible and fully expect to be arrested and charged if I disobey a law.  Illegal immigrants have broken the laws of the United States.  Do we ignore that they have borken the law just because we "feel" that the law is bad.  Do you get to decide if the law is bad - no the courts do that.  I have got a newsflash for the pastor who is afraid that his ministries will suffer if the illegals are deported.  Guess what pastor you can take your ministry to them in their country of origin and make life better for them there.
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  • Douglas 2 comments collapsed Collapse Expand
    NMEX - that passage is in Romans 13. 

    Oh, it's ok if you ignore US immigration law; it's ok that in so doing you're placing a huge financial burden on an already burdened country.  Oh, it's ok that you are in the country illegally -your doing so is placing an unfair burden on the American people who have earned the 'entitlements' your dependents born in this country get because you just happened to be here (it's actually called a 'ticket').  It's ok you come into this country undocumented and bring your street gangs, drugs, prostitution and murder with you. It's ok that you come into this country expecting special treatment - and protection from sympathetic people who have been deceived by your lies, sorrowful looks and your use of children to conjure up images in the mind that are anything but reliable.  The thought that the laws pose a challenge shouldn't be seen as 'unfair' but as a challenge - which also brings opportunity.  It's interesting that the Church of the Living God would be whining about challenge. If these people were in charge 2000 years ago I wonder where the church would be today.  Why whine about challenge? How can we challenge sinners to become right with God if we encourage that which is illegal? Because of that I feel the use of UMC images and logos not be used by these dissident groups because doing so sends a message that is , in fact, a LIE - they do NOT speak for the UMC and should be disciplined for attempting to send a message in such a manner as to deceive those who don't know UMC polity and organization. Preying on ignorance is as wrong as preying on innocence.
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  • Andrew Cannon 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    Douglas, while I think most of what you said is widely exaggerated and misleadingly stereotyped, isn't it also a pretty apt picture of how we all come to God?  None of us deserve the bountiful blessings that the Church promises, but how often do we act entitled to them?  How often do we burden the blessed Body of Christ with the sinfulness we carry in?  How often do each of us, in fact, pose a "challenge" to our brothers and sisters in Christ?  Not to say we should ignore these actions for the evil they are, but please, for the love of God, reflect on how God received _us_.  Maybe if we consider the parallels between illegal immigrants and our own entry into the Christian faith and Christ's salvation, we can more clearly see what St. John means by: "We loved because God first loved us."
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  • TheAuldWan 2 comments collapsed Collapse Expand
    It used to be required that all Methodist clergy be familiar with and adhere to all of the Artricles Of Religion. I recommend we return to this requirment and again familiarise ourselves with article 26,  "Of the duty of Christians to the civil authority."
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  • Andrew Cannon 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    But this article isn't about civil disobedience yet: this article is about a group of Christian leaders how are _lawfully_ and _appropriately_ opposing legislation.  Even if you don't believe it is their religious duty, it is in fact their legal right.  And because they are opposing this through the proper channels, this is in no way a violation of the Articles of Religion.  (By the way, it's preposterous to suggest that Bishop William Willimon is unfamiliar with the Articles of Religion.  Do you know who he is?)  And just to throw it out there, look at the end of Article XVI from the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church: "We believe it is the duty of Christian citizens to give moral strength and purpose to their respective governments through sober, righteous and godly living."  What happens when "sober, righteous and godly living" violates the law?
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  • Back Bencher 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    Once again, Big Brother is passing on the enforcement of law to the ordinary citizen instead of the burgeoning LAW forces! Transporting  is particularly eggregious, or Orwellian! The presumption  of Innocence, so fundamental to our nation and laws, is being tampered with at best and trampled on at worst. My personal and pastoral thanks to Alabama's bishop for vocally opposing this travesty of justice!
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