The religious freedom argument against HB 56 that was not made

The Federal judge, Sharon Lovelace Blackburn heard the three suits against HB 56 today.  While I supported the Department of Justice’s and the Civil Rights suits, I was most interested in the Bishop’s suit that HB 56 infringed on First Amendment rights.

I wished I had been able to track down a copy of the actual complaint because if I had I would have offered an amicus brief  presenting another argument than the one offered in court today.  Judge Blackburn was adamant that the three bishop’s;  Methodist, Episcopal, and Catholic  had not made their case.

The attorney said “If the bishops encourage their clergy and congregations to serve immigrants then the bishops would have exposure to be in violation of the law.”  What?  This is not about the bishops.  This is about seeking to fulfill the tenets of faith that teach to welcome the stranger, to serve the poor, to provide resources that enable the immigrant to live here.

The Judge repeated the question, how does this statute prevent the church from practicing its faith. How does it prevent the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion?  “Saying it does, does not make it so,” Judge Blackburn stated. As I listened to the judge read portions of the bishop’s affidavit, I would agree.

One of the bishops wrote that this law would impinge on his freedom of religion by prohibiting him from offering counsel to an immigrant pregnant woman where by not being able to receive his counsel she might then get an abortion.  I sat there in horror. This was their argument?

Judge Blackburn simply did not see the argument of infringement because the argument was based on doctrinal beliefs and not on services congregations provide based on living their faith. There is nothing in Section 13 that speaks to doctrinal beliefs and therefore does not impinge on freedom of religion, freedom of speech, or freedom of assembly the judge stated. The Bishop’s example provided was so far fetched and out of touch with what his congregations are doing that I was stunned at the weakness of this argument.

Let me back track with a story.  In Danbury, CT there developed in the 1990’s a large community of Brazilians.  The question arose as to why Danbury as a destination point?   The answer was simple.  Danbury had a well established and large Portuguese community which provided among other things  a Portuguese radio station, a Portuguese newspaper, Portuguese markets, and Portuguese worshiping communities.  Granted these were in continental dialect  Portuguese and not brazilian dialect Portuguese but the language similarities were close enough that their presence provided the resources to enable the Brazilian community to thrive and integrate easily into American society.

Congregations, regardless of faith tradition,  seeking to live out their faith teachings to welcome the stranger and to provide hospitality to the least of these  are providing the resources to enable immigrants to thrive here in Alabama.  HB 56 section 13 specifically states that harboring, transporting, and encouraging immigrants to reside in Alabama is against the law.  The free practice of our religion to provide these services as taught by our collective faiths is impinged and injured when the offering of these resources to immigrants become illegal under section 13.

What are these resources that enable and  encourage  immigrants to live here?  The provision of English as a Second language courses is a resource that will enable immigrants to live in Alabama.  The provision of meals through soup kitchens, food pantries, meals on wheels enable immigrants to live here.  The provision of church run homeless shelters, the provision of worship services in languages other than English allows/  enables/ empowers immigrants to live here. There are other resources that congregations in living out their faith provide immigrants.

Worship services do more than just feed the spirit they provide a place of community; a place where connections can be made for support.  Immigrants coming to Alabama need to find places where they can meet people who are similar enough to themselves in order to thrive.  Churches and congregations are these places because in part they are following the tenets of the faith to welcome the stranger, to feed the poor, to clothe the naked, to house the homeless.

This law on its face  states that actions that allow places of harbor, that transport immigrants to access vital resources  are actions that encourage immigrants to reside in Alabama and therefore are illegal under Section 13. The lawyer attempted to point out that section 13 does not define the terms harboring, transporting, concealing.  She further stated that Section 27 talks about entering into contracts and therefore  congregations could read this as impinging the delivery of church sacraments such as marriage.  The judge did not buy this argument because there have been no cases where a church was not allowed to perform a marriage ceremony according to its faith. The lawyer was not able to state that it was indeed the intention of the legislature to impinge faith institutions in part, I presume, because the bishops were not at the public hearings to report what was said.

When I spoke at the house public hearing, the chair of the committee sponsoring this bill stated clearly that if a congregation has undocumented immigrants worshiping in the church he would personally insure that in addition to the immigrants being arrested, the clergy would be arrested for harboring them.  The Lawyer could not state that as an answer  when the judge stated, “Everyone is exaggerating, it is not going to go that far.”  The legislator who wrote this bill intended it to go that far, I heard him after I gave my testimony against this law at the public hearing.

The best the lawyer could do was state the provision for  church exemption was removed from the senate version of this bill indicating that churches were not exempt to this law.  The judge simply did not buy this as a strong enough statement of intent.

Our hope for this law to be halted whether in whole or in part rests with the much stronger arguments presented by the U.S. Department of Justice and  the Civil Rights suits.  May it be so.

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One Comment

  1. After Watching the State of Illinois pull licences from Catholic Charities for refusing to place Children with same sex or unmarried couples, I’m a little pessimistic on keeping the State from meddling in Churches.

    Understand your concern. I was hoping the attorney would have been stronger in presenting the argument. She wasn’t. And the judge just didn’t see the concern.


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