Church or state?

Published 8:05 pm Friday, August 5, 2011

Leaders of the Episcopal, Roman Catholic and Methodist churches n Alabama filed a federal lawsuit earlier this week in an effort to stop the enforcement of the state’s new anti-immigration law. The group alleges the law could directly affect the churches’ mission to assist others.

According to the suit, the church leaders “have reason to fear that that administering of religious sacraments, which are central to the Christian faith, to known documented persons may be criminalized under this law.”

J.D. Barnes, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Demopolis, pointed out that the law, which is slated to go into effect Sept. 1, could leave churches and Christians in a difficult spot.

Email newsletter signup

“I kind of, to some degree, have some mixed feelings about it,” Barnes said. “In one regard, I guess I see that we have a law that may have some problems and difficulties that need to be worked out. At the same time, I don’t have any problem with the law and it dealing with something that the federal government isn’t going to do.”

The church leaders who filed the lawsuit against Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange and Madison County District Attorney Robert L. Broussard believe the new legislation will do “irreparable harm” to the 338,000 members of the three churches in the state.

“If enforced, Alabama’s Anti-Immigration Law will make it a crime to follow God’s command to be Good Samaritans,” the lawsuit states. Furthering, it states that the law puts Alabama church members in the “untenable position of verifying individuals’ immigration documentation” before being able to provide things such as food, clothing, shelter and transportation to those in need.

“The church’s responsibility is to look after people. I think that we have a responsibility to try to treat people fairly,” Barnes said. “There are a lot of church ministries that would or could be affected by a law such as this. For example, if you have a ministry where you teach people English or you have a food pantry kind of thing, it certainly could have an impact if you’re feeding someone or teaching someone a language, you could fall into the provisions where you are considered as aiding or harboring someone who is an illegal.”

Barnes said the legislation originally contained a provision which would have protected churches, but passed without such a clause in its final form.

“From what I understand, there was an original draft of the bill where language was taken out that exempted churches,” Barnes said. “That removal of that provision had a lot of people concerned.”

The law, which now contains no provision for protecting churches, has struck a negative chord with church leaders and other Christians statewide.

The crux of the difficulty for churches centers around the philosophies of helping others and obeying the laws of the land, two approaches which those filing suit believe could now come into conflict with one another under this legislation.

“If my bible tells me to help the traveler and the alien, isn’t the state interfering with my right to practice my religion if I give an illegal alien a ride in my car,” Emily Yancey asked. “At what point does the state have a sufficient interest in prohibiting an action that they can stop me from doing it, even if my religion requires it?”

“How do you balance the notion of your Christian faith against the laws of the land which you are in,” Barnes rhetorically asked.

“It’s a tough balancing act. I think this kind of law is one of those things that makes it difficult to be able to decide what is right. What am I being called to do? What am I condoning? “It puts us in an interesting place. It’s a tough situation to be in.”