MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Legislation being pushed by the governor and other Republican leaders to revise Alabama's immigration law addresses some of the concerns raised by religious leaders, but it doesn't go far enough to erase their belief that the state is trying to keep them from following the biblical commandment to look after "the least of these."
Republican Rep. Micky Hammon of Decatur introduced the bill in the House on Thursday with the support of Gov. Robert Bentley, House Speaker Mike Hubbard, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh and other key leaders. It came after the law, signed by the governor in June 2011, drew criticism from religious leaders, law enforcement and business groups for being unclear and unworkable.
The governor's legal adviser, Cooper Shattuck, said the changes should alleviate many concerns about religious organizations getting into trouble for ministering, providing food or offering other services to illegal immigrants. He said the changes clarify that religious organizations don't have to verify the legal residency of people they serve, and that they won't get into trouble for having an illegal immigrant in ministry or mission work, as long as the person is not paid as an employee.
Shattuck said another change clarifies language on when a violation occurs. The new language says someone must conceal, harbor or shield a person from detection while knowing the person is in the country illegally or with reckless disregard to the person's status.
"These changes go a long way to address their legitimate concerns," Shattuck said.
The Rev. Angie Wright from the Beloved Community United Church of Christ in Birmingham said the changes don't go far enough and in some cases make the law harsher. That includes levying a felony punishment for aiding five illegal immigrants, when the current law provides for aiding 10 or more.
"It is deeply disturbing to me, especially during Holy Week, that legislators have shown no remorse for the massive suffering caused by HB56," she said, referring to the bill number for the law.
Wright is an organizer of Faith Leaders for a Welcoming Alabama, which is running TV ads criticizing the law. She said the proposed changes won't stop criticism because even if the changes are enacted, the law will still interfere with the role of churches by creating fear in immigrant communities.
"This is the work of the Lord — looking after the least of these," she said.
Kitty Rogers Brown, an attorney for Episcopal Bishop Henry Parsley Jr. of the Diocese of Alabama, said Friday the revision legislation is a sign that state officials are listening to religious leaders' concerns. "But it does not go far enough," she said.
Brown said some of the changes appear to offer protection to church leaders, but the wording of the bill makes her concerned the protection is not extended to church members.
Brown represents Parsley in his suit where he joined Roman Catholic and Methodist church leaders in challenging the law. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta is waiting on a U.S Supreme Court ruling on Arizona's immigration law before ruling on the challenges to Alabama's law.