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."

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.

Immigrant populations are a big growth area for Christianity, said Alan Wisdom, former vice president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, an ecumenical alliance of U.S. Christians that seek to contribute to the renewal of democracy by strengthening churches' social witness.

"Churches look to those communities as a source of new members and vitality," he said. "They're hesitant to do something that would offend them and they have a great amount of sympathy for them."

According to a survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, the adult population of the Roman Catholic Church has been able to remain at a fairly steady 25 percent of the overall population. The most significant factor that accounts for this stability is a "disproportionately high number of Catholics among immigrants to the U.S." which has off-set the roughly 10 percent of the overall population that was raised Catholic, but left the church in adulthood.

Evangelicals' opinions about immigration may also be increasingly influenced by greater dependence on undocumented residents for numbers and better exposure to their plight. Exposure makes people more likely to lean toward policies that emphasize compassion, said Richard Land, former president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of TIME Magazine's "Most Influential Evangelicals in America."

"It puts a human face on the issue," he says. "Many of these illegal immigrants have been evangelized by Evangelicals, and now they're connected."

Marching in rock step

Lyons and other pastors organized "Immigration 101" meetings hoping to humanize the issue of illegal immigration.

"If you just call someone an illegal, they remain nameless," he said. "My greatest hope is to inspire people to see undocumented immigrants as human beings and people we are called to see as our brothers and sisters."

Lyons recognizes, though, he won't be able to win everyone over. If nothing else, he said, he hopes by getting people to talk about HB 56 in a religious setting, he can encourage them to think about how their faith relates to immigration policy.

"It's helpful for people to ask, 'You're Christian, how does your faith influence the way you look at this issue?'" he said. "I tell them, 'Let's not look at immigration from a political or economic view point. Let's look at it from a faith standpoint.'"

The vast majority of church-going Christians don't use their faith to frame their opinions on immigration. While 50 percent of the people Pew surveyed indicated religion influenced their views on immigration, only 7 percent said their beliefs were the biggest influence. That's a significantly lower response than was found for issues like gay marriage (35 percent), abortion (26 percent) and the death penalty (19 percent). More people said personal experiences, media or education were the biggest factor in determining their opinions on the topic.

"What you hear depends on where you're attending religious services," said Greg Smith, Senior Researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "White Evangelical Protestants, for instance, are much less likely than Catholics or mainline Protestants to say immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents."

Data also shows that across a variety of issues, "people don't always march in rock step with their religious leaders in terms of thinking about social and political issues," Smith said.

Among Catholics, 64 percent support ramping up enforcement efforts to encourage illegal immigrants to go home, while just 23 percent support conditional legalization, according to a recent Zogby poll of religious communities. Sixty-four percent of mainline Protestants and 76 percent of born-again Protestants favor enforcement over legalization.

Wisdom said he thinks many Christians prioritize one Biblical value over another in forming their personal views on immigration, but said the wide array of attitudes also has a lot to do with differing senses of the relationship between church and state, an influence many might not attribute directly to religion.

"The two have distinctly different obligations as far as the Bible is concerned," he said. "The role of the church is to love neighbors without respect to origin. The state's role is justice — to protect citizens and advance their wellbeing above those of other countries. That's not to say they can't be reconciled, but different traditions balance those out differently."

There are also different readings of the facts on the ground. Scholars come to different conclusions about the economic effects of immigration, and there are many different interpretations of its history. Without the directness many Christians find in the Bible on other issues, for many, those contradictions are especially weighty.

Despite the Bible's apparent lack of clarity, though, clergy insist scripture is relevant to the immigration discussion. Buttram uses its verses to justify voting for HB 56. Laney and Lyons turn to its pages to justify their decisions to rebel against HB 56.

"The bible has as much to say about immigration as it does about any other issue," said Land, who was influential in crafting a recent Southern Baptist Convention resolution titled, "On Immigration and the Gospel." "It's just a matter of whether or not people are paying attention."

Email: estuart@desnews.com

TWITTER: elizMstuart

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS