Jay Reeves, File, Associated Press
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — For some believers and church leaders, opposing Alabama's toughest-in-the-nation law against illegal immigration is a chance for Bible Belt redemption.
During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, many state churches didn't join the fight to end Jim Crow laws and racial segregation. Some cross-burning Ku Klux Klan members took off their hoods and sat in the pews with everyone else on Sunday mornings, and relatively few white congregations actively opposed segregation. Some black churches were hesitant to get involved for fear of white backlash.
Now that Alabama has passed what's widely considered the nation's most restrictive state law against illegal immigration, mainstream churches, faith-based organizations and individual members are leading opposition to the act. Some see their involvement as a way to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.
"I think what happened in the '60s may be a stimulus for the action that you have seen many of the churches taking on this," said Chriss H. Doss, an attorney and ordained Southern Baptist minister.
Matt Lacey, pastor of a United Methodist church once attended by Birmingham's infamous segregationist police commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor, said there are all sorts of reasons Alabama Christians are opposed to the law. Making amends for the past inaction of religious groups is among them, he said.
"For me, as pastor of a church that was engaged in that battle, it is very important," said Lacey. "If we take redemption very seriously, then it not only covers our sins but our past actions as a church. I think for some, there is a tendency to want to be on the side of right on this issue. ... I would like to think the church just wants to do what's right."
At 56, the Rev. Al Garrett is old enough to recall some faith communities sitting on the sidelines during the civil rights movement. Garrett, who helped organize a prayer rally that drew a few hundred people Sunday night in Huntsville, said the difference now is uplifting.
"I've thanked God that I've been here to see the way people of faith are taking a stand on this," he said.
After a prayer for wisdom, members of the Birmingham City Council recently passed a unanimous resolution calling for the repeal of the law. That same day, ministers and lay people gathered to discuss opposition to the law in the same church where, more than 50 years ago, white segregationists gathered to form a group to oppose white and black children going to school together.
Urged to come to a rally and candlelight march sponsored by churches and faith-based groups, a diverse crowd estimated around 2,000 marched quietly through downtown streets on a recent Saturday night near where police dogs snapped at black demonstrators two generations ago.
An interfaith prayer walk planned for July 30 in Montgomery will pass Martin Luther King Jr.'s first church on the way to the steps of Alabama's Capitol. And more than 100 United Methodist ministers — many of them moderate to liberal, but some also on the conservative side — signed an open letter to the governor criticizing the law.
Believers are doing more than praying and protesting. The ecumenical Greater Birmingham Ministries, a Montgomery-area church member who works with Hispanics and two ministers were among the groups and individuals who filed a federal lawsuit last week attempting to have the law declared unconstitutional.
Doss is struck by the differences between 2011 and 1963, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" to seven white moderate ministers and a rabbi who were publicly urging him to go slower with the campaign to end legalized segregation. Many black churches also were slow initially to embrace the cause of civil rights in Birmingham, where Klan night riders roamed with bombs for years.
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