Sanctuaries of Compassion: Religious Freedom and Immigration Reform

I grew up during the golden age of Disney animated films. Aladdin, the Lion King and yes, even the “chick flick”-esque Beauty and the Beast and Little Mermaid were defining moments of my childhood. Perhaps the most underrated movie from this era was Disney’s interpretation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The film follows Quasimodo as he befriends the gypsy Esmerelda. As the movie progresses, he defends her from the persecution of Judge Frollo, who simultaneously holds strong prejudices against gypsies and lusts after Esmarelda. During the climactic action scene, Quasimodo and Esmarelda run into Notre Dame Cathedral and declare, “Sanctuary!”, pleading for the church to protect them from the persecution of the government. This sill happens in America, and shockingly it is illegal in many cases.

This issue came to a boiling point six years ago when 32 year old Elvira Arellano avoided deportation by seeking sanctuary in a Methodist Church in Chicago’s West Side. She was eventually arrested and deported back to Mexico. Since then some states have passed laws targeting churches that harbor or give any assistance to individuals who are in this country without documentation.

The most high profile instances of this law have been in Arizona and Alabama. Both states passed laws granting themselves authority to prosecute undocumented immigrants and those who employ or otherwise aid them. These laws usually include a provision that makes it illegal for a church, faith based organization, or other institution to “harbor” undocumented immigrants. While these state immigration laws are widely considered unconstitutional, this particular rule clearly violates the religious freedom of all churches and faith-based organizations.

When most people think of outcries regarding religious freedom, they think of the HHS contraceptives mandate, not the immigration reform debate. What is important to remember is that respecting religious freedom is not one policy initiative among many, or the catch-phrase of a special interest group. Instead, religious freedom is a principle by which policies should be judged, regarded with the same respect as freedom of speech and the press. The Center for Public Justice defines one aspect of religious freedom as when, “Churches, social service organizations, schools, and other organizations …enjoy the freedom to articulate and maintain their purposes.”

“As debates about immigration reform continue, we must push to ensure that the rights of faith-based organizations to care for the immigrant are protected. “

“As debates about immigration reform continue, we must push to ensure that the rights of faith-based organizations to care for the immigrant are protected. “

In this case, Christian organizations should be free to act in accord with their biblical foundations. One of the consistent themes throughout the Bible is that of the sojourning community. Abraham constantly travels; the descendants of Jacob move to, and then are enslaved in Egypt; the nation of Israel is exiled to Babylon and Christians are called to live in a way that is “in, but not of, this world” and to “love the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:18). God makes no distinction about the legality of a person’s status, and neither should our churches. In fact, many churches in border states believe it is their calling to care for those immigrating from Mexico and other countries in Latin America.

When states pass laws forbidding us to follow this clear command, which derives from the second greatest commandment, they clearly violate the church’s religious freedom. These anti-harboring laws prevent the free exercise of Christianity and all other religions that call for caring for the stranger. A diverse body of religious organizations have cried out against these laws, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which listed anti-harboring laws as a “Threat to religious liberty”. Similarly, the Bishops of the Episcopal, Catholic and Methodist Dioceses of Alabama jointly filed suit against the law claiming, “If enforced, Alabama’s anti-immigration law will make it a crime to follow God’s command to be Good Samaritans.”

Religious freedom allows the followers of all religions to work towards what they understand God to be calling them to. And since the triune God of the Bible is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, our exercise of religious freedom may at times seem conservative and at other times very liberal. (Think about the Christian abolitionists helping the slaves along the freedom trail). As debates about immigration reform continue, we must push to ensure that the rights of faith-based organizations to care for the immigrant are protected. Similarly, as all public policy debates move forward, we must ensure that the rights of all religions are respected in the public square.

-Paul Hartge is the assistant to the president at the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. He graduated from Calvin College in 2010 with a double major in political science and religion.
Photo courtesy of Phil Roeder.