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

Laney, a small, peppy woman with dark eyes and a dark bob, acknowledges the importance of both teachings, but, for her, compassion takes priority. She served the illegal immigrants in her congregation before HB 56 and, she said, she won't stop — regardless of the court's decision. She continues to teach English classes and hold Bible study in Spanish. She shuttles undocumented immigrant children to and from school "with a clear conscience," she said.

"This is a hard time for them," she said. "They need me now more than ever."

Mac Buttram, a former Methodist pastor who is now a state legislator, though, refuses to make such a compromise. His congregation gave clothes and toys to underprivileged children from local schools at Christmas time and used a church-owned van to transport boys from a Hispanic Boy Scout troop, "so it's likely," Buttram said, that he's lent a helping hand to undocumented immigrants in the past. But he never had a known undocumented immigrant in his congregation.

"I think we can have compassion for people at the same time that we're insisting that they obey the law," he said. "I don't think those are necessarily oppositional."

For his decision to vote "yes" on HB 56, he has been called cruel, racist and unchristian.

"When I look at myself and my fellow legislators who voted in favor of this law, I don't find that any of us came to this in a mean spirited way — in a way that was racial or intending to punish anybody unnecessarily," he said. "The bottom line is that if you're here legally you deserve to be here and if you're here illegally you need to leave."

Immigration and the pulpit

Mitchell Williams, a pastor at Cullman First United Methodist Church, was contemplating starting a Hispanic branch when legislators passed HB 56. Since the law went into effect this summer, though, his Hispanic following has dropped by almost 75 percent. When a tornado blew the roof off his chapel, the roofer he hired struggled to get the job done because many of his workers had stopped showing up.

"They are afraid to go to church," he said. "They are afraid to go to work."

As he watched his congregation struggle, he said, he concluded that HB 56 is "mean spirited." Along with 150 other Methodist pastors, he signed a letter pleading with the governor to repeal the law. But while he preaches the principle of "loving the stranger among you," he doesn't talk about HB 56 over the pulpit.

"We teach basic principles like how we should take care of the poor and be a good neighbor to everyone regardless of their immigration status," he said. "But we are suspicious of declaring Jesus' blessing on any particular law or law maker. We don't tell people how to vote."

While many church leaders have been vocal in their appeals to government leaders, immigration ranks low on the list of issues religious leaders speak about in church, according to a 2010 report by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Of people who attend religious services once or twice a month, only 24 percent said they'd heard their clergy speak out about immigration, which is significantly lower than was found for issues like gay marriage and abortion.

As the war against illegal immigration heats up in Alabama, though, many pastors are becoming more specific in their sermons on the subject, said R.G. Lyons, pastor of the Church Without Walls in Birmingham. He's not shy about discussing HB 56 during Sunday sermons and has even started coordinating with other religious leaders to put on regular "Immigration 101" meetings during the week.

"I absolutely preach about the law," he said. "I absolutely tell stories of people who have been affected by the law."

Of those people whose pastors do talk about immigration in church, half say they've heard clergy say things in favor of immigration, a quarter say they've heard things against it and a quarter say they're unable to classify, according to Pew. People who said their clergy talked about immigration over the pulpit were more likely to have positive views of immigrants, saying they "strengthen the country with their hard work and talents."

The clergy's tendency to make positive comments about immigrants — illegal and otherwise — may not be entirely based on interpretations of doctrine.

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