For Many Alabama Churchgoers, Fighting the Immigration Law is a Chance for Redemption

Churches and religious groups are deep in the debate over a New Mexico state law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.

Churches and religious groups are deep in the debate over a New Mexico state law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.  (AP)

During the civil rights struggle, many Alabama church members and leaders -- both black and white -- stayed on the sidelines, choosing not to publicly join the fight to end Jim Crow laws.

Now, during what some describe as the civil rights struggle of today, it is churches that are leading the fight against Alabama's law cracking down on undocumented immigrants. Alabama's law -- which is facing a court challenge by a coalition of civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union -- is considered the most stringent in the country.

For some believers and church leaders, opposing Alabama's self-declared war against undocumented immigrants is a chance for Bible Belt redemption.

Some see their involvement as a way to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.

"I think what happened in the '60s may be a stimulus for the action that you have seen many of the churches taking on this," said Chriss H. Doss, an attorney and ordained Southern Baptist minister.

Matt Lacey, pastor of a United Methodist church once attended by Birmingham's infamous segregationist police commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor, said there are all sorts of reasons Alabama Christians are opposed to the law. Making amends for the past inaction of religious groups is among them, he said.

"For me, as pastor of a church that was engaged in that battle, it is very important," said Lacey. "If we take redemption very seriously, then it not only covers our sins but our past actions as a church. I think for some, there is a tendency to want to be on the side of right on this issue. ... I would like to think the church just wants to do what's right."

At 56, the Rev. Al Garrett is old enough to recall some faith communities sitting on the sidelines during the civil rights movement. Garrett, who helped organize a prayer rally that drew a few hundred people Sunday night in Huntsville, said the difference now is uplifting.

"I've thanked God that I've been here to see the way people of faith are taking a stand on this," he said.

After a prayer for wisdom, members of the Birmingham City Council recently passed a unanimous resolution calling for the repeal of the law. That same day, ministers and lay people gathered to discuss opposition to the law in the same church where, more than 50 years ago, white segregationists gathered to form a group to oppose white and black children going to school together.

Urged to come to a rally and candlelight march sponsored by churches and faith-based groups, a diverse crowd estimated around 2,000 marched quietly through downtown streets on a recent Saturday night near where police dogs snapped at black demonstrators two generations ago.

An interfaith prayer walk planned for July 30 in Montgomery will pass Martin Luther King Jr.'s first church on the way to the steps of Alabama's Capitol. And more than 100 United Methodist ministers — many of them moderate to liberal, but some also on the conservative side — signed an open letter to the governor criticizing the law.

On a national scale, faith leaders have been among the most vocal advocates for immigration reform policies that would give undocumented immigrants a way to legalize their status. 

Politicians across the nation have seen houses of worship as a valuable forum for drumming up support for policies that would give a break to undocumented immigrants, and for making their case against harsh immigration laws.

On Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin held a press conference in Washington D.C. -- with leaders of various faiths,-- where he called on churches, synagogues and mosques to talk to their congregations about the DREAM Act, which would enable undocumented immigrants who came before the age of 16 to obtain temporary legal status so long as they meet a strict set of criteria, including attending college or attending the military.

The Illinois Democrat, who recently re-introduced the DREAM Act, said that, as part of what is being billed as the DREAM Act "Sabbath," congregations across the country would devote a service in the fall to the DREAM Act. 

In Alabama, believers are doing more than praying and protesting. The ecumenical Greater Birmingham Ministries, a Montgomery-area church member who works with Hispanics and two ministers were among the groups and individuals who filed a federal lawsuit last week attempting to have the law declared unconstitutional.

Doss is struck by the differences between 2011 and 1963, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" to seven white moderate ministers and a rabbi who were publicly urging him to go slower with the campaign to end legalized segregation. Many black churches also were slow initially to embrace the cause of civil rights in Birmingham, where Klan night riders roamed with bombs for years.

"There were a number of black ministers who took a more conservative position, that they were not going to get involved publicly. Their involvement greatly increased through the years," said Wayne Coleman, head of archives at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Churches had little to say about the bill as it moved through the Alabama Legislature, but that could be because they were overwhelmed for weeks providing food and other assistance to victims of the deadly tornadoes that swept across the state on April 27, killing more than 240 people.

In contrast, denominational leaders were outspoken at the Georgia General Assembly as a similarly tough law moved toward final passage in Atlanta. Religious leaders have been less vocal in Georgia since legislators passed the law, but a federal judge blocked key provisions of that act this week.

Now in Alabama, leaders among the state's fast-growing Hispanic community hope the involvement of churches will help lead to a repeal of the law, signed earlier this month by Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, a Southern Baptist deacon and Sunday school teacher.

"It's huge to have the faith community come together and speak out in such great numbers against this new law," said Isabel Rubio, executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. "Because we're in the middle of the Bible Belt, we certainly expect that the faith communities' influence ... will land on folks' ears who are willing to listen."

Religious opposition to the new law — which has included not just Christian churches but Jewish and Muslim congregations — is two-fold.

Some Christians see the issue in faith terms when they compare biblical instructions to welcome strangers and love others with the law's ban on helping illegal immigrants secure a place to live, a job, health care other than for emergencies and even a ride to the store. Under the law, police can check anyone's immigration status during a traffic stop or other encounter and jail people without bond if they don't have proper documents.

Fernando del Castillo, pastor of a Spanish-speaking congregation of about 300 people in metro Birmingham, is particularly worried about a provision requiring that schools check the immigration status of students and report the information to the state. He fears some immigrant parents will be afraid to send their children to school when classes resume in August.

"Will they keep them at home? I don't know," del Castillo said.

Others are worried the law could criminalize mission work with illegal immigrants.

"They wonder if this is the beginning of infringing on freedoms that the church has considered its bailiwick," Doss said.

Leaders of the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church all have criticized the law as running counter to biblical teachings about caring for neighbors, helping visitors and showing hospitality to strangers.

The state's largest denomination, the Alabama Baptist Convention, hasn't taken a position publicly and likely won't since it doesn't speak for individual churches. Convention president Mike Shaw, pastor of a church in suburban Birmingham, said the law "is the toughest in the nation and personally I think all laws need to be enforced."

"I am concerned about the language concerning giving a ride in an automobile to an illegal immigrant or allowing children of illegal immigrant parents to ride on a church bus to Sunday school, vacation Bible school, or church camp," he said in a statement. "Should we ignore people who are injured or have broken down on the side of a busy interstate highway and have small children in sweltering heat with no family or friends to help them?"

This is based on a story by The Associated Press.

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