Immigration bill puts ministers in tough spot

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 11, 2011

Some Alabama churches are opposing a state law set to go into effect next month that is labeled the most stringent illegal immigration law in the nation. Some local ministers oppose it, as well.

Several statewide organizations have filed suit against the state, claiming the immigration law inhibits their right to practice their religion by performing acts of charity for non-citizens.

The Catholic Church and state chapters of the Methodist and Episcopal churches have also signed onto the suit. An Aug. 24 hearing has been set on whether or not to temporarily stop the law from being enforced.

Locally, the Rev. Cindy Howard of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church said the law puts people like her in a bad position.

“This is not unlike the bill in Arizona, which has been criticized,” she said. “For me, I believe I am to show God’s love to all people. Does this mean that if someone comes in and wants to take communion and they are not legal, am I going to be in violation of the law? Does it put me in violation if I show God’s love?”

Howard said she agrees there needs to be immigration reform in the United States.

“I truly agree we need to do something about immigration, but this may not be in the best interest,” she said. “It limits what we can do as a church. What happens if someone comes in and needs food? I feel this law is not right. Am I supposed to check their documentation if they ‘look illegal,’ whatever that means, before I help them?”

“My hope and prayer is for a reasonable solution in which these unfortunate consequences may be addressed and the infringement upon our religious civil liberties be relieved as we continue to live out our faith,” he said.

Opp’s First United Methodist Church Pastor Dr. G. Charles Satterwhite said he, along with a group of Methodist ministers, met with the Methodist bishop recently to discuss the immigration law.

“We feel like there are a lot of indirect threats,” he said. “In the Methodist Church, we are very inclusive. If someone is in trouble, we would help them. The new immigration law certainly affects reaching out to illegal immigrants.”

Satterwhite said for churches it’s a difficult predicament.

“You don’t want to turn aside a family that is hungry,” he said. “For evangelization, it puts us in a predicament. The mantra of the Methodist church is ‘the world is our parish.’ It does kind of hit us wrong.”

Satterwhite said during the meeting there were some frank discussions about what to do.

“You don’t want to break the law,” he said. “But we have to minister to everyone. You have to minister confidentially; you are bound to that confession. There’s a lot of heartburn.”

Satterwhite said the church is basing its opinion on such scriptures as Exodus 22:21, which says, “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.”

“There are no stipulations,” he said. “(The Bible) says help all the aliens. I think that one of the thigns we discussed around the table was that we were all aliens to God. The Lord himself said he came to his own people and they did not receive him.”

Satterwhite said state legislators have good intentions.

“The thought was very noble in trying to keep criminal elements down,” he said. “On the other hand, a criminal is a criminal, no matter the color of skin. We as Methodists feel the fields are the world.”

A number of ministers contacted declined comment.