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Bible used to fight, defend Alabama immigration law

9:02 AM, Jan 18, 2012   |    comments
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By Bob Smietana, The Tennessean

The Bible tells its readers to obey the law, but it also tells them to welcome strangers and foreigners.

That's left Christians divided over the issue of immigration reform, and the fight has come to Middle Tennessee.

Members of Nashville-based Clergy for Tolerance say that any new immigration laws have to mix justice with compassion. They hope to prevent Tennessee from passing immigration laws like the one in Alabama, which they say is too harsh.

But supporters of the Alabama measure say the Bible teaches that the government's job is to enforce the law, and those who break it should be punished. The American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian legal group with local attorneys, filed a brief in federal court supporting the Alabama law.

That measure, being challenged by the Obama administration, prohibits undocumented immigrants from entering into "business transactions" with the state, requires police to check immigration status during traffic stops and makes it a crime for U.S. citizens to knowingly assist undocumented immigrants.

This legislative session, Tennessee lawmakers could take up a bill that would require state officials to check citizenship before granting services such as disaster relief and immunization and a bill that would require driver's license exams be administered only in English.

That disturbs the Rev. Randy Hoover-Dempsey, pastor of All Saints Episcopal Church in Smyrna, whose congregation includes about 200 Burmese immigrants.

"The whole heart of the gospel is in Matthew 25, where Jesus said, 'I was a stranger and you welcomed me,' " Hoover-Dempsey said.

The religious message of welcoming strangers has been lost in the angry debate over immigration reform, he said, and harsh immigration laws - which make people prove their immigration status even at traffic stops - make all immigrants feel unwelcome, whether they are in the country legally or not.

On the other hand, the American Center for Law and Justice has defended the immigration law in Alabama based on the issue of states' rights.

 CeCe Heil, a Franklin attorney for the center, recently helped write an amicus brief in that court case.

"A decision sustaining the Administration's claims will effectively leave the states powerless over unchecked illegal immigration and the associated social and economic costs that their citizens must bear," it reads.

ACLJ declined to comment on the immigration debate, but Carol Swain, a law professor at Vanderbilt University vocal about her Christian faith, said clergy shouldn't be trying to write immigration laws. And she believes the current system - in which millions of immigrants are in the United States illegally - is untenable.

"It places immigrants in situations where they are more likely to be exploited," she said. "Everyone benefits when you have an orderly system."

The Rev. Jim Bachmann of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Nashville said he hasn't taken a stance on immigration reform, but if a member of his church was in the country illegally, the church would encourage him to obtain legal status.

"The doors of the church are open to everyone," he said. "But we want people to obey the law."

Alabama bishop sues to block law

The Rev. Kathy Chambers, co-organizer of Clergy for Tolerance, said 300 clergy attended her group's first public event, held in November at the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel. Most were Christian, but the event also included Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist leaders.

The keynote speaker at that event was Bishop Will Willimon of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. Willimon is one of three Alabama bishops who sued to block that state's new immigration law. Their suit is under appeal.

He told the group that Alabama clergy didn't pay attention to the immigration law as it made its way through the legislature.

"This is too important to leave to the politicians," he said.

Now, they're particularly worried about its Article 13, which makes it illegal to "harbor" or "transport" an illegal immigrant. So if a Sunday school teacher drives an illegal immigrant to church, that teacher is committing a crime, Willimon said.

He said the law has created a climate of fear in Alabama, and Hispanics in particular are leaving the state, whether they have legal status or not. That means congregations are losing Hispanic membership.

The second Clergy for Tolerance event, scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Jan. 24, will feature a screening of the movie Gospel Without Borders by the Nashville-based Baptist Center.

Chambers, an Episcopal priest, said she hopes the documentary will get clergy to pay attention to the legislature and, more importantly, talk to their congregations about what their faith says about immigration.

"We are not going to tell them how to vote," she said.

 

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