Protecting Public Safety without Undermining Faith-Based Organizations

In recent weeks, the South Carolina Senate passed a bill mandating that social services providers who resettle refugees, including faith-based organizations and houses of worship,  must register those refugees with the state and accept legal liability if any of them violate any law.  This bill, which would create the nation’s first state-wide registry for refugees, was passed 39-6 by the SC Senate the day after the terrorist attacks in Brussels.  The bill is working its way through the South Carolina House.  As an article in the South Carolina newspaper The State noted:  “Registry opponents argued tracking refugees could add a stigma to people escaping violence and oppression in their home countries.”

The bill was amended on its way through the Senate. Among other amendments, the updated legislation calls for resettlement agencies to register refugees with the South Carolina Department of Social Services within 30 days of their coming to South Carolina (the original legislation required the refugees themselves to enroll with the government.) Additionally, according to The State, while the original version of the bill called for making the refugee registry public by posting it online, the updated version would not make this information public.  Further, the updated version “also eliminates a ban on using state or local government money to aid refugees. Opponents said refugees could not attend public schools or get help from police officers or firefighters if a ban was part of the proposal.”

The bill originates in public concern, shared by European officials, with the possibility of terrorists abusing the refugee resettlement program to enter the United States (a similar bill has been introduced in New York).  But organizations that work with refugees, among them faith-based organizations, are concerned that the bill will be detrimental to legitimate refugees and to the organizations that help them settle in the United States. Mark Hetfield, president and chief executive of HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit dedicated to refugee resettlement, and Jack Moline, a rabbi and the president of Interfaith Alliance, recently co-authored an op-ed in theWashington Post entitled “How South Carolina Could Fail Refugees and Religion.” In the piece, Hetfield and Moline write that this legislation is not just detrimental to America’s reputation as a refuge “of assisting those forced to flee their homes, but also jeopardizes the promise of religious freedom that is the core of American civic life.”

Organizations that work with refugees, among them faith-based organizations, are concerned that the bill will be detrimental to legitimate refugees and to the organizations that help them settle in the United States.

The authors say that the South Carolina bill plays into the fear-mongering narrative that looks upon refugees as violent, extreme, and not really in need of sanctuary.  But refugees, they note, have made many significant contributions to American life in the fields of religion, art, business, and science. Moreover, they point out, crime rates are higher among those born in America than among those born abroad.  But most poignantly, the op-ed highlights the threat of this bill to faith-based organizations that assist refugees: “To force religious organizations to bear responsibility for any crimes refugees might commit is at once to demonize those refugees and to pretend that they do not hold the same responsibility for their own actions as anyone else.”

Hetfield and Moline stress the blessing it has been that faith-based organizations in America have been able to serve as their respective faiths have called them to serve.  This freedom has enabled them to be in the vanguard of social movements supporting justice and civil rights for the oppressed.  Institutional religious freedom is a precious good.  But it is devalued, they say, if it is protected only selectively. 

They write: 

“That so many [conservatives] seem ready to abandon religious-freedom concerns when it comes to refugees, subjecting religious organizations to undue scrutiny and impeding their ability to serve, suggests that these politicians value religious freedom only when it serves their political agenda…. The ultimate irony is that faith organizations have played such a vital role in responding to the refugee crisis precisely because of the failure of our federal, state and local governments to act. If South Carolina’s disastrous, discriminatory idea becomes the norm, who will be left to reach those people in need? All of us who cherish religious freedom should be deeply concerned by this proposal that is so obviously aimed at discouraging religious organizations from fulfilling our sacred duty to serve.”

Notwithstanding the public-safety intentions of the bill, such negative consequences suggest its supporters ought to look for a different way to achieve its aims.

- ‎Chelsea Langston is the Director of Equipping and Membership for the Institutional Religious Freedom Allianceat the Center for Public Justice. This article originally appeared here