Bishops Say Alabama's Harsh Immigration Law Would Criminalize Religious Sacraments

      BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) - Three Christian bishops and an archbishop sued Gov. Robert Bentley, saying Alabama's harsh new immigration law is unconstitutional and would criminalize even the administering of religious sacraments.
     "Alabama's Anti-Immigration Law may brand Christians as criminals," Episcopal, Methodist and Roman Catholic bishops and the Catholic Archbishop of Mobile say in Federal Court.
     "If enforced, Alabama's anti-immigration law will make it a crime to follow God's command to be Good Samaritans," the bishops say. The law is slated to take effect Sept. 1.
     The bishops say the law will criminalize even "administering of religious sacraments."
     Calling the law "the nation's most merciless anti-immigration legislation," the bishops say, "If enforced, Alabama's Anti-Immigration Law will make it a crime to follow God's command to be Good Samaritans. Luke 10:25-37. Without relief from this Court, the Law 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. If enforced, the Law will place Alabama church members in the untenable position of verifying individuals' immigration documentation before being able to follow God's Word to 'love thy neighbor as thyself.' Matthew 22:39. Alabama's Anti-Immigration Law may brand Christians as criminals."
     The bishops add: "the anti-immigration law runs counter to the Christian spirit of compassion. The law is unconstitutional and a direct affront to the recognized and accepted word of God."
     Gov. Bentley signed the bill, No. 2011-535, on June 9.
     The Department of Justice also has challenged its constitutionality.
     The bishops say they were forced into court "to prevent irreparable harm to the 338,000 members of Alabama's Episcopal, Methodist and Roman Catholic churches as well as other residents, who will directly suffer under Alabama's new law, the nation's most merciless anti-immigration legislation."
     They say the law "violates the First Amendment rights of members of Alabama's faith community to freely exercise their requisite duty to practice the Gospel. Biblical teachings to extend hospitality to all people without reservation are obligatory to members of Alabama's Episcopal, Methodist and Roman Catholic religions as well as other faiths. These Bible-based instructions to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and clothe the naked are in direct conflict with the law's restrictions against assisting undocumented Alabama residents."
     The law makes it a crime for Alabama residents to harbor, conceal or transport undocumented immigrants or induce them to come into the state. It makes it illegal to rent property to undocumented people. And it changes contract law, prohibiting state courts from recognizing or enforcing contracts between an undocumented immigrant and any other resident, if the second party is aware of the immigrant's "unauthorized" status. The few exceptions include food purchases, medical services and taking an immigrant back to where he came from.
     "The anti-immigration law is designed to impose new punishments for violations of immigration law (as defined by state law and state officers); to detain and ultimately to cause the expulsion of undocumented residents from the state; and to criminalize everyday interaction with such individuals, including criminalizing the activities of Alabama's faithful to serve all people regardless of their immigration status," according to the complaint. (Parentheses in complaint).
     Alabama is the fourth state to follow Arizona's example in enacting statewide immigration laws. The others are Georgia, Utah and Indiana. The U.S. Constitution, and federal courts, say immigration is a federal, not a state, concern.
     The bishops add that Alabama's anti-immigration law criminalizes church activities such as providing transportation, shelter, food and education to congregants in need.
     "Churches do not check the immigration status of members or individuals receiving services but know, or have significant reason to suspect, that many of the persons they serve are, or are likely to be, undocumented," according to the complaint.
     The bishops say the law "will prohibit Alabama's churches from performing marriages and baptisms, operating day cares and housing facilities, transporting residents, and performing other services due to fear of criminal prosecution from conducting any business with individuals assumed or suspected of being undocumented."
     They add: "Members of Alabama's Episcopal, Methodist and Roman Catholic churches will perpetrate crimes by knowingly providing food, clothing, shelter and transportation to those in need without first ensuring compliance with the stipulations of the anti-immigration law. Moreover, the ministry of the churches, by providing such services to known undocumented persons, is criminalized under this law. To forbid members of Alabama's faith communities from providing these services is in violation of their sincere religious belief to help others without reservation. Members of Alabama's Episcopal, Methodist and Roman Catholic churches are so sincerely committed to welcoming strangers that they demonstrate their commitment by engaging in ministries throughout the state to provide meals, housing, transportation and educational services."
     The bishops add: "the anti-immigration law violates the rights of Alabama residents to freely assemble and welcome all people to the altar. Due to fear of criminal prosecution, many residents will be unable to attend worship services, Bible study and other religious activities, and many Christian citizens of the state will be prohibited from assisting them in doing so."
     They say the contract provision of the law interferes with the churches' thrift stores, day care, housing and health care operations and prohibits them from performing marriages, baptisms and providing counseling services.
     "Further, the Bishops have reason to fear that administering of religious sacraments, which are central to the Christian faith, to known undocumented persons may be criminalized under this law."
     They say the law is unconstitutionally vague in defining what constitutes a violation, what the penalties are and what activities are exempt. And they say it fails to define terms such as "concealing", "harboring" and "unauthorized."
     They say the law violates constitutional rights to free exercise of religion, free assembly, freedom of speech, equal protection, due process and the Contracts Clause.
     They want the state enjoined from enforcing it.
     The plaintiffs are the Rt. Rev. Henry N. Parsley Jr., Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Alabama; the Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon, Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church; the Most Rev. Thomas J. Rodi, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Mobile; and the Most Rev. Robert J. Baker, Roman Catholic Bishop of Birmingham.
     Their lead counsel is Augusta Dowd with White Arnold & Dowd.