HB 56: Pondering Civil Disobedience

I have been pondering what our next steps should be in response to HB 56 in AL and HB 87 in GA. I confess my understanding of the HB 87 in GA is limited, so my comments here will reflect more on HB 56.

I attended the federal hearing of HB 56 in Birmingham. Judge Blackburn just wasn’t getting the religious argument and the attorney was not presenting a very strong argument to enable her to get it.  In fact, I thought she erred in her strategy altogether. The attorney went doctrinal and this law is not about doctrines but about resources that religious organizations offer in practicing their faith that enable immigrants (undocumented and documented) to remain in AL.  So there is a very good chance that the judge will rule for the state in regard to first amendment rights being violated.

But this is indeed about first amendment rights being violated. And so I have been wondering, what are the next steps?  I have been reading about the New Sanctuary movement.  The original sanctuary movement in the 1980’s was in response to supporting refugees from El Salvador fleeing their country from the US backed civil war. These refugees were not given asylum in the US because the US maintained they were allies with these countries. But this reason hides the deeper truth that the US was providing military training and arms to the governments that were killing their people involved in liberation theology in El Salvador.  So congregations of many faith traditions became sanctuary congregations and gave hiding places to refugees and moved them from congregation to congregation to Canada which was offering asylum.

In 2007 the New Sanctuary Movement was born, “with the goal of protecting immigrant families from unjust deportation, affirming and making visible these families as children of God and awakening the moral imagination of the country through prayer and witness.”  This movement is also comprised of a broad interfaith coalition including the Unitarian Universalist Association.  (See the UUA’s involvement with the New Sanctuary Movement here. )

These congregations support a family undergoing deportation with American born children perhaps by providing meals, transportation to work, and other material and spiritual support.  Congregations may also offer their locations to alternative labor/employer match sites.  I encourage you to thoughtfully examine the New Sanctuary Movement website and pay close attention to what are the expectations and roles of participating congregations as found here.

This site also discusses briefly the federal Immigration and Nationality Act which includes section 1324 regarding harboring.  According to this site, all cases regarding prosecution of this act were aimed at individuals who secretly harbored or concealed but not those individuals who notified INS of the undocumented person’s presence but continued to shelter them.   They surmise the same would be true for congregations who alert INS of the undocumented person’s presence but continue to shelter them. But this has never been tested in court and therefore the UUA legal counsel advises that congregations contemplating this stance to consult with an immigration lawyer.

In most states sanctuary is not a criminal activity but in AL under this new law providing sanctuary or creating sanctuary for undocumented persons is a crime.  Mickey Hammon, State Representative, during the public hearing of his version of HB 56 stated, after I spoke against this bill, that if any congregation has undocumented individuals worshiping in the church that he will ensure that the clergy with the undocumented persons are arrested. He has also stated that HB 56 was to impact all aspects of the immigrant’s life.

I am quite aware that in AL, if we were to have sanctuary congregations we would be asking our congregations to be willing to face the criminal charges as defined in Alabama’s law. People harboring undocumented immigrants could be charged with a class A misdemeanor unless ten or more individuals were harbored and then the charge is a Class C Felony.  What are we willing to risk to create justice?


  1. Well it is good to see that you are pondering *real* civil disobedience here rather than the carefully calculated erstaz “civil disobedience” of deliberately committing minors misdemeanors that U*U clergy engage in during some peaceful public protests.

    What indeed are U*Us willing to risk to create justice?

    I expect that very few are willing to risk facing comparatively serious criminal charges.

    One question for you.

    Does HB 56 over-ride the age old tradition of being able to seek sanctuary in a church?

    Yes, HB 56 over-rides the age old tradition of seeking sanctuary in a church. But then that age old tradition has not been honored in the US for quite some time, if ever.

  2. Thank you for the cool reasoning and useful history, Rev. Fred! I am with you and with the UUA. Our Civil Rights activity in the 1960s was also considered to be “criminal” by local and state authorities. And the original sanctuary movement as you note, was likewise. Our country was founded on “civil disobedience”! I am with the abolitionists and feminists and Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr and the new guiding lights of the social justice movement.

  3. Thank you for posting my comment Fred and responding to my question. I am sorry to hear from you that HB 56 over-rides the age old tradition of seeking sanctuary in a church and, even worse, that tradition has not really been honored in the US. I can assure you that it *is* honored up here in Canada.

    Kudos to you for seriously considering *real* civil disobedience.

  4. I return to Alabama tomorrow and would like to join others in thoughtful study of both sanctuary and other ways to stand in solidarity with immigrant brothers and sisters. I do not know what each congregation might decide, but we can make sure that our individual congregations truly understand what civil disobedience means and what it meant 50 years ago. In this time of assault on so many of the rights we take for granted, it is especially important that all understand, whether willing to act or not, the significance of earlier sacrifices.

    I think this would be good to weigh thoughtfully even if congregations decide not to go this route. It is better, I think, to give this thoughtful discernment than to simply dismiss without consideration.

  5. Well said Helen,

    Especially the part about making sure that individual Unitarian Universalist congregations *truly* understand what civil disobedience *really* means and what it meant 50 years ago.

    OK I added the *really* just to underline the point that deliberately getting yourself arrested during protests on minor misdemeanor charges that have little or nothing to do with the “unjust law” that you are challenging in order to obtain and-or increase media attention is not *genuine* civil disobedience AFA*I*AC.

  6. This article was really reasonable and it is really an interesting blog. I really thank you for sharing this type of blog. Very informative and at the same time it is really enjoyable to read. Keep it up and good luck.

  7. You’ve got SPAM Wonderful SPAM Fred.

    Innocuous very generalized comments like the above comment are very often commercial SPAM postings. I guess in this case the SPAM is more or less on topic as it provides a link to a web page for Immigration Attorneys. . .

    Robin, this was in my spam folder. I specifically approved the comment as it was relevant to topic, most spam is not, and because it possibly could be a resource for people in need, again most spam is worthless drivel. WordPress actually has a very good spam filter and I approve all of the messages, regardless, before posting.

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