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.
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.
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.
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
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.
disturbs the Rev. Randy Hoover-Dempsey, pastor of All Saints Episcopal
Church in Smyrna, whose congregation includes about 200 Burmese
"The whole heart of the gospel is in Matthew 25, where Jesus said, 'I was a stranger and you welcomed me,' " Hoover-Dempsey said.
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.
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.
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
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.
places immigrants in situations where they are more likely to be
exploited," she said. "Everyone benefits when you have an orderly
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
"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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.