ALABAMA: Religious leaders welcome judge's temporary ruling to block immigration law

August 29, 2011

Religious leaders and other opponents of Alabama's stringent immigration law welcomed a federal judge's Aug. 29 ruling temporarily blocking the controversial measure from taking effect.

Bishop Henry N. Parsley, Jr. of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, along with other church leaders as well as civil rights groups and the U.S. Justice Department, had sued to stop House Bill 56, considered the harshest immigration law in the nation, from taking effect Sept. 1.

Parsley was away on vacation, but issued a brief statement Aug. 30 in response to the court ruling. "We welcome Judge Blackburn's interim decision to enjoin the Alabama immigration law from taking effect on Sept. 1," Parsley said in the statement, read to ENS by administrative assistant Peggy Turner.

"It makes it possible for the churches to continue to minister to all people without fear of criminal prosecution, and for our state to be a place not of fear but of compassion and kindness," Parsley said. "For this we are thankful."

Parsley and others had argued that the law, if enacted, "will prohibit the members of these mainstream congregations from being able to freely practice their faith to minister to all of God's children without regard to immigration status."

Bishop H. Julian Gordy of the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, on Aug. 30 called the measure, signed into law in June by Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, "harsh, unhelpful, and in some places, even hateful."

The law "unfortunately has some of the same kind of effects that the Jim Crow laws had, when so many African Americans fled the south for the west and the north and northwest in the last century, and I think we're seeing that with Latinos now, both documented and otherwise," he added.

The Jim Crow laws were enacted between 1876 and 1965 and mandated legal segregation between blacks and whites in restrooms, movie theaters, restaurants and other public places.

He added that Georgia had recently enacted "similar legislation, although not quite as harsh. It would not make it illegal to give a Sunday-school child a ride, for example, like the Alabama law would."

The impact of that law has significantly affected some Lutheran congregations, added Gordy. "Both documented and undocumented people have left the state looking for a more immigrant-friendly climate, and that has had a significant detrimental effect on our predominantly Latino congregations. As one member of a congregation said, 'It's very clear that we aren't wanted in the state.'"

The Southeast Synod represents 160 congregations in four states and about 55,000 Lutherans, he said.

The Alabama law, like similar measures enacted in Arizona, Georgia and other states, would require local law enforcement to verify the immigration status of those stopped for traffic violations. But the Alabama law goes a step further, requiring public schools to determine the immigration status of students. It would also make it a crime to knowingly rent to, transport or harbor undocumented immigrants.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley had released a statement saying, "I look forward to the judge ruling on the merits. We have long needed a tough law against illegal immigration in this state, and now we have one. I will continue to fight at every turn to defend this law against any and all challenges."

Gordy of the ELCA said that although it's difficult to know how Blackburn will eventually rule, nearly every immigration law enacted has, at least in part, been ruled unconstitutional. Key portions of Arizona's SB 1070 have been blocked while a federal appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court consider various challenges.

Bishop Will Willimon of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church said he is hopeful that the judge will eventually make her temporary ruling a permanent one.

The law interferes with ministry, added Willimon, who oversees 830 churches in the North Alabama Conference, including 12 Spanish-speaking congregations, representing altogether about 165,000 Methodists, he said.

"One of my churches consulted attorneys; they have five different ministries that are affected by this law. The attorneys urged them to terminate these ministries if they don't want to face prosecution."

The law has affected everyone, he said. "At one of our very lively predominantly Hispanic congregations attendance was down 50 percent the Sunday after the law was announced," he said. "It's so sad, because the pastor said that as far as he knew, everyone in the congregation was documented. They got the message, that you're not welcome to immigrate into Alabama and that's what concerns me most -- this unprecedented encroachment into the lives of businesses and churches and schools by the government that this law represents."

The Rev. Hernan Afanador, diocesan Hispanic missioner, said he rejoiced at hearing Blackburn's decision, even though the judge said she merely needed more time to address the legal arguments from various parties. The temporary injunction did not reflect the merits of either position, according to published reports by CNN.

But Afanador said it gave him hope. Since the measure was signed into law in June, average Sunday attendance at Iglesia de la Gracia, Birmingham, where he serves as rector, has dropped from 100 to about 15, he said.

He hopes that once Blackburn has a chance to review all the legal arguments, she "will say that some part of this law is unconstitutional, that she's going to dismiss some part of this law, especially those parts affecting religious communities."

But he added that he isn't sure if the temporary injunction will halt the exodus from the state of Hispanics -- both documented and undocumented -- in fear of being targeted or racially profiled.

"We're not feeling good," he said, adding that he tells his remaining congregation "to pray and to stay. We are between many things, you know; especially, we don't have a lot of money in our community to develop this or that program. I can only be with them and pray, that's the situation right now."

Mark Wheat, treasurer at All Saints Episcopal community in Aliceville County, another congregation at which Afanador serves, said the law has already had an effect on the rural community.

"We have a lot of saw mills, timber industry and a lot of people work in the timber industry. A lot have been leaving … things are going to be tough at the church."

While Wheat believes that undocumented people "put a burden on schools and health care," ultimately, he says, immigration laws should be resolved by the federal government. Meanwhile, for those caught in the crossfire, "it's sad, but it's just the way the world is," he said.

In addition to Arizona and Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Utah and Indiana have enacted immigration restrictions, even though the U.S. government considers it a federal issue. Federal judges have blocked portions of the laws in at least four of those states.

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