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Alabama's immigration law dividing religious community

By Samantha Strong Murphey and Elizabeth Stuart

Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Jan. 21 2012 1:00 p.m. MST

Otilia Gaona is a U.S. citizen but is saddened by Alabama's immigration law, which is the most strict of any state.

The WashingtonPost/Getty Images

In the months since Alabama passed the nation's toughest immigration law, Yenny Laney's life has changed drastically. Once childless, she's now playing foster mom to five boys whose parents are in immigration detention. Her home in Cullman, Ala., has been transformed into a storage facility where illegal immigrant families fleeing the state can safely leave their belongings. She's traded her Ford sedan for a Kia minivan so she can both cart around her new, larger family and act as a chauffeur for her Hispanic neighbors who are afraid to drive lest they be pulled over, ticketed and deported.

"It is busy," she said, raising her voice to be heard above the squeals coming from the back of the van, where the boys, ranging in age from 20 months to 9 years, were engaged in a full-out pinch war. But she doesn't complain. As a minister for First United Methodist Church, Laney believes with all her heart and soul, "This is what God wants me to do."

Tired of waiting for federal immigration reform, Arizona, Georgia, Utah, South Carolina and Indiana have all passed laws in recent years attempting to remedy the complications caused by illegal immigration. But no one has gone quite as far as Alabama, whose law has been branded as radical. Its hard-line stances on hiring and renting to undocumented residents, demands for schools to identify illegal students in classrooms and forbidding the transportation of undocumented residents in any way, shape or form have many up in arms.

In Alabama, where close to 85 percent of the population is Christian, the Bible has become a major talking point in the often hot-blooded debate over illegal immigration. Nearly all of the state's major Christian denominations have officially spoken out against HB 56. At least four bishops — an Episcopal, a Methodist and two Roman Catholic — have sued the state, claiming the statute compromises their right to free exercise of religion and makes it "a crime to follow God's command to be Good Samaritans."

Church leaders say the fight has been a unifying experience, bringing together different churches in a way that hasn't been seen in Alabama since the civil rights era. But within congregations, illegal immigration remains a divisive issue. While leadership leans toward leniency, statistics suggest the majority of their followers lean the other way. Christians from both extremes cite scripture to support their positions and Christians from both extremes believe scripture should be left out of this discussion of politics altogether. Believers disagree about the scope of America's illegal immigration problem, what should be done about it and even to what extent their faith can and should influence their opinions on the subject.

Helping a neighbor in need

Some religious leaders in Alabama worry that the language of the new legislation will make crucial parts of their ministries — like giving people rides, inviting them to services and performing marriages and baptisms — punishable under the law. The concern prompted the Sisters and Monks of the Order of St. Benedict to join forces with other religious leaders, the U.S. Department of Justice and several civil rights groups to sue the state. As a result of the lawsuit, parts of the law have been put on hold.

"HB 56 prevents us as Catholics from being faithful to our call to minister to our sisters and brothers regardless of their immigration status," said Sister Lynn Marie McKenzie, a nun from Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman who handles the church's legal affairs. "The gospel says, 'When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was lonely, you comforted me. When I was in prison, you visited me.' No scripture ever said, 'If I had documentation, then you gave me food.'"

While the legal battle over HB 56 wages on, religious leaders are stuck in a doctrinal gray area. The law puts two Biblical teachings at odds. In Romans 13, Christians are told they are under "biblical mandate to respect the divinely ordained institution of government and its just laws." But the Bible also commands believers to "show compassion and justice for the sojourner and alien among us."

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