DALLAS (CN) - The "unprecedented" ban in Texas on Syrian refugees violates the religious rights of faith-based organizations and their charitable and humanitarian work, 17 interfaith religious leaders told a federal judge in an amicus brief.
The group - which includes two Methodist bishops, two rabbis, Baptists, Episcopalians, Unitarians and Lutherans, all from Texas - filed a brief in support of the United States and nonprofit International Rescue Commission on Jan. 11.
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission sued the United States and the IRC in December to try to keep Syrian refugees out of Texas.
Texas claimed the defendants violated the Refugee Act of 1980, which requires the federal government to "consult regularly" with state and local governments and nonprofit agencies before placing refugees in homes.
Texas claims the IRC failed to comply with its Dec. 1 demand not to resettle six Syrians in Dallas "until we have receive[d] the requested information and our concerns with screening procedures have been appropriately addressed" by federal officials.
The United States last week filed a motion in opposition to Texas' request for a preliminary injunction. It says Texas has no legal right to veto federal refugee resettlement decisions. It says the state has failed to show that Syrian refugees "pose any danger, much less an imminent one" to Texas residents.
The religious leaders say they are "distressed by Texas's actions."
"Amici, like many people of faith, are called by their religious convictions to provide charitable and humanitarian aid to those in need, including refugees fleeing the tragic circumstances they face at home to resettle in America," the brief states.
"Several amici lead organizations that provide direct financial support to, and share institutional affiliations with, the refugee resettlement agencies that are under threat of lawsuit and contract revocation. Those amici who are not directly involved in the resettlement of Syrian refugees are nevertheless deeply concerned that Texas's actions can hinder the efforts of faith-based organizations to aid the needy."
The religious leaders say Texas' demand they discriminate against needy individuals based on national origin "is not just wrong: it threatens religious freedom."
"It cannot seriously be doubted that the sincere calling to provide charitable and humanitarian aid to refugees constitutes free exercise of religion," the brief states. "Religiously motivated charitable aid to the needy is the free exercise of religion whether or not it 'is motivated by a central part or central requirement of the person's sincere religious belief,' and whether or not it is the type of aid that can be provided on a fully secular basis."
The religious leaders say the state cannot substantially burden the free exercise of religion unless it can show its action is the least restrictive means in support of a compelling government interest under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
"Amici respectfully submit that Texas's amorphous claim of a security interest in excluding Syrian refugees from Texas does not approach the compelling government interest necessary to support impinging on the religious freedom of faith-based charities," the brief states.
The religious leaders are represented by Joseph D. Lee with Munger Tolles in Los Angeles.
A federal judge in Dallas refused to issue a restraining order against the United States in December, calling Texas's claims of fear of terrorism "speculative hearsay." Texas then tried again to get a restraining order against the United States.
In November, 31 governors, 30 of them Republicans, tried to bar Syrian refugees from their states, though states have no power to do this. Refugees are granted legal status before they enter the country and so are "documented," legally resident, from the moment they set foot on U.S. soil. States have no power to bar a legal U.S. resident from crossing state lines.
The amicus brief brings to mind the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, when religious leaders across the United States opened their churches to Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees and in essence dared the government to prosecute the church leaders.
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