"There were a number of black ministers who took a more conservative position that they were not going to get involved publicly. Their involvement greatly increased through the years," said Wayne Coleman, head of archives at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
Churches had little to say about the bill as it moved through the Alabama Legislature, but that could be because they were overwhelmed for weeks providing food and other assistance to victims of the deadly tornadoes that swept across the state on April 27, killing more than 240 people.
In contrast, denominational leaders were outspoken at the Georgia General Assembly as a similarly tough law moved toward final passage in Atlanta. Religious leaders have been less vocal in Georgia since legislators passed the law, but a federal judge blocked key provisions of that act this week.
Now in Alabama, leaders among the state's fast-growing Hispanic community hope the involvement of churches will help lead to a repeal of the law, signed earlier this month by Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, a Southern Baptist deacon and Sunday school teacher.
"It's huge to have the faith community come together and speak out in such great numbers against this new law," said Isabel Rubio, executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. "Because we're in the middle of the Bible Belt, we certainly expect that the faith communities' influence ... will land on folks' ears who are willing to listen."
Religious opposition to the new law — which has included not just Christian churches but Jewish and Muslim congregations — is two-fold.
Some Christians see the issue in faith terms when they compare biblical instructions to welcome strangers and love others with the law's ban on helping illegal immigrants secure a place to live, a job, health care other than for emergencies and even a ride to the store. Under the law, police can check anyone's immigration status during a traffic stop or other encounter and jail people without bond if they don't have proper documents.
Fernando del Castillo, pastor of a Spanish-speaking congregation of about 300 people in metro Birmingham, is particularly worried about a provision requiring that schools check the immigration status of students and report the information to the state. He fears some immigrant parents will be afraid to send their children to school when classes resume in August.
"Will they keep them at home? I don't know," del Castillo said.
Others are worried the law could criminalize mission work with illegal immigrants.
"They wonder if this is the beginning of infringing on freedoms that the church has considered its bailiwick," Doss said.
Leaders of the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church all have criticized the law as running counter to biblical teachings about caring for neighbors, helping visitors and showing hospitality to strangers.
The state's largest denomination, the Alabama Baptist Convention, hasn't taken a position publicly and likely won't since it doesn't speak for individual churches. Convention president Mike Shaw, pastor of a church in suburban Birmingham, said the law "is the toughest in the nation and personally I think all laws need to be enforced."
"I am concerned about the language concerning giving a ride in an automobile to an illegal immigrant or allowing children of illegal immigrant parents to ride on a church bus to Sunday school, vacation Bible school, or church camp," he said in a statement. "Should we ignore people who are injured or have broken down on the side of a busy interstate highway and have small children in sweltering heat with no family or friends to help them?"
Associated Press Writer Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this report.
- Photo gallery: Tornado rips Oklahoma suburb
- Huge tornado hits Oklahoma City suburb, kills...
- Top scandals and controversies of each United...
- Journalists criticize Obama administration,...
- Fly a flag for Cody: Army confirms Utah man...
- Mile-wide tornado churns through Oklahoma...
- Oklahoma, other tornado-hit states brace for...
- Measles surges in UK years after flawed...
- Mitt Romney talks IRS, AP records,... 65
- Associated Press CEO calls records... 23
- White House insists Obama was not... 22
- Journalists push back against Obama... 21
- House chairman sees IRS targeting as... 16
- Republicans try to link IRS scandal,... 12
- Tea party looks to take advantage of... 12
- Supreme Court to weigh in on... 12