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Church reaction mixed on immigration ruling


7:00 A.M. ET September 30, 2011

Participants from many faith communities participate in a march on June 25 to stop Alabama’s HB56 immigration law. A UMNS photo courtesy of Lyn Cosby.
Participants from many faith communities participate in a march on June 25 to
stop Alabama’s HB56 immigration law. A UMNS photo courtesy of Lyn Cosby.
View in Photo Gallery

United Methodist reactions to a federal judge’s rulings on Alabama’s new immigration law were as mixed as the rulings themselves.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn allowed key provisions of the legislation to go into effect. However, she blocked part of the law church leaders feared would criminalize routine acts of ministry, such as transporting children to Sunday school.

“The judge’s decision … protects our churches’ ministries from prosecution under this over-reaching law and substantially protects our religious liberties,” said Bishop William H. Willimon of the North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference.

However, he and other United Methodists expressed concerns about portions of the law Blackburn let stand.

Willimon joined three other bishops from the state’s Episcopal and Roman Catholic dioceses in a federal court suit to stop the law. The Alabama law, HB56, also faces legal challenges from the U.S. Justice Department and a coalition of civil rights groups. Both opponents and supporters of the Alabama legislation have called it the toughest immigration measure in the country.

Of particular concern for the bishops was Section 13 in the law, which would have made it a crime to knowingly “harbor” or “transport” immigrants who are not lawfully present in the United States. In one of her three rulings issued Sept. 28, Blackburn put the section on hold while appeals move forward, saying it conflicted with federal law.

“One of the positive effects of this bill is to learn all that our churches are doing,” Willimon said. He said he was particularly impressed by the ministries some of the conference’s small rural churches were providing for immigrants.

The law has intimidated some of these small congregations, Willimon said. But with the judge’s ruling, he said, United Methodist churches in Alabama can continue “to provide food, shelter, transportation, housing and the church’s sacraments to all of God's people, regardless of race, class or citizenship status.”

Bishop William H. Willimon A UMNS web-only photo by Linda Green.
Bishop William H. Willimon
A UMNS web-only photo
by Linda Green.

A matter of contracts

In her ruling on the lawsuit brought by the bishops, Blackburn denied the request of the church leaders to halt a provision that nullifies contracts involving unauthorized immigrants.

The bishops contended that the provision, Section 27, would prohibit Alabama churches from performing marriages and baptisms for unauthorized immigrants. They argued the measure also would prevent the operation of camps, day cares or any service that might be used by individuals suspected of being undocumented.

Blackburn, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, disagreed. The Alabama law, she wrote, excludes marriage licenses from its definition of a “business transaction,” and such services as day cares and camps do not require contracts for their operation and management. Since the provision had no potential to harm church work, she wrote, church leaders did not have standing to press the issue.

Danny Upton, a United Methodist attorney and native Alabamian, also challenged Section 27 as part of the lawsuit brought by civil rights groups.

Upton is the national program attorney for the United Methodist ministry Justice for Our Neighbors, which provides free, professional legal services at monthly clinics for immigrants. He argued that Section 27 would prevent him from entering representation agreements with his clients.

Such contracts, he told UMNS, are “the very mechanism by which the undocumented can become documented … and I am not able to do that with any undocumented people in the state of Alabama.”

In her ruling on the case brought by the civil rights groups, Blackburn agreed that Upton had standing to challenge the law. However, she disputed his lawsuit’s argument that Section 27 violated federal anti-discrimination law.

The federal law, she wrote, “does not protect a person from discrimination on the basis of unlawful presence.”

Worries about law

Willimon and Upton had other misgivings about the law.

Blackburn let stand a provision requiring public elementary and secondary schools to check the citizenship status of children. Willimon wondered where the funding would come from to support “the new bureaucracy” required to check student birth certificates or immigration papers. 

The judge also declined to block the provision that requires law enforcement officials to “make a reasonable attempt” to determine the immigration status of people they stop and suspect of being in the country illegally.

Upton, a member of Hazel Green (Ala.) United Methodist Church, rejoiced that Blackburn halted part of the law that banned unauthorized immigrants from enrolling in public universities.

Yet, he said, he feared the law-enforcement provision could lead to racial profiling and the unwarranted detention of people based on their ethnicity.

“We have such a painful history of race relations in this state anyway,” he said, “and I think this will be a painful experience for all Alabamians in the end.”

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

The Rev. Matt Lacey, the North Alabama Conference’s director of mission and advocacy, and the Rev. R.G. Lyons, pastor of Community Church Without Walls, crafted the letter.

“We are pleased to see some of the harsh and far-reaching elements of the law have been struck down,” Lacey and Lyons said in a statement. “We feel that many of these elements, written by members of the state house and senate who campaign on Christianity, are not representative of the message of Christ who welcomed the stranger despite country of origin or status.”

They added that they worry some of the remaining parts of the law also are too harsh and hope “the courts will look further into those provisions.”

The Rev. John Bailey <br/>A UMNS web-only photo courtesy of John Bailey.
The Rev. John Bailey
A UMNS web-only photo
courtesy of John Bailey.

State Rep. Mac Buttram, a retired United Methodist pastor, also had mixed feelings about Blackburn’s rulings. A Republican from Cullman County, Buttram campaigned on enacting immigration reform in 2010 and voted for the Alabama law this summer.

While he disagreed with some of Blackburn’s legal interpretations, Buttram said, he saw her rulings mainly as “an affirmation.”

“Our intent has been to make sure people who are here illegally are not given the same privileges people who are here legally should get,” he said. “I’ve always contended that we were not limiting ministry in churches.”

He did acknowledge that the challenges to the law are far from over, and the law already has prompted some unintended consequences. In his county, which depends on agriculture, farmers have told Buttram that they are short of workers because even legal immigrants have left the state since the passage of the law.

“I would not have anticipated that people who are here legally would have left because of the law, but apparently that has happened,” he said.

He is trying to help farmers apply to participate in the federal guest worker program.

“I am going to be pushing for solutions but not backing off people who are here illegally,” Buttram said. 

The Rev. John Bailey, director of missions at Asbury United Methodist Church in Madison, near Huntsville, sees the law as an opportunity for his ministry. Bailey is among the clergy who spoke out against the law.

“My call as a United Methodist deacon is to encourage, equip and prepare the body of Christ to join in God’s work in the world, especially among the poor and oppressed,” he said. “It was painful to realize through this process that so many who profess the name of Christ view the alien as ‘other’ and do not see themselves in the eyes of the alien. … My ministry remains the same, to take people to the places where the ‘others’ live and work and trust the Spirit of God to open our eyes and soften our hearts.”

*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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  • Southern 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    The open letter Matt and R.G. crafted, was interpreted as the entire North Alabama conference's voice. Never did anyone associated with the letter denounce that they were "NOT" speaking for the entire conference. Nor did they prohibit or request pastors that assigned their names to the letter in support, not to place their church affiliations. Instead they requested them to put their church affiliation. This caused all who saw these names and affiliation to assume the local churches agreed with their pastor whose name appeared there. Never once was the conference web site offered to those of us in favor...
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  • Patty1942 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    This country was founded by immigrants.  My ancestors came from Ireland.  But immigrants need to be in this country legally.  They are not entitled to free education, free welfare, etc., etc.until they can prove that they are here legally.
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