Last week, my alma mater, Wheaton College, announced it was joining the Catholic University of America in a lawsuit over a provision of the new health care reform act that, they feel, would force them “to violate their deeply held religious beliefs by providing access to abortion-causing drugs or paying severe fines.” The primary reason for the suit, as Wheaton’s president Phil Ryken explained to Christianity Today, is that it would require a Christian college like Wheaton, which the regulations treat differently (and, in what the campus views as a dangerous precedent, less worthy of religious freedom) than a local church, to pay for coverage that violates their convictions. In doing so, Ryken and Catholic University president John Garvey argue, the mandate threatens “the freedom—guaranteed by the United States Constitution—to carry out our mission in a way that is consistent with our religious principles.”
The recent concerns shared by many evangelicals, Catholics, and other Christians about this Health and Human Services mandate are just one of several concerns over infringements on religious liberty in recent months. As President Obama announced his support for legalized gay marriage in May, some worried that their churches could be forced to officiate marriages of same-sex couples in violation of their convictions (though the President says that he respects the rights of each particular church to define marriage for themselves). Others have rallied around a Gilbert, Arizona church that was told that a town code limiting religious assemblies made their home Bible study illegal. I’ve been hearing more about religious freedom than I ever have in my lifetime, including at my church, which doesn’t often comment on political issues.
I share many of these concerns particularly because the organization for which I work, World Relief, is a religious organization but not a church, and thus will be affected by the HHS mandate (our CEO has joined many others in expressing our concerns). I’m concerned, though, that my evangelical brothers and sisters might be missing—and sometimes even complicit in—another pressing threat to religious liberty (one that our Catholic brothers and sisters have been quicker to note). In their effort to make their states hostile places for undocumented immigrants to live, some states have also criminalized certain vital elements of Christian ministry—and there are many who would like to see these policies duplicated at the federal level.
For example, clauses in the state-level immigration bills in Alabama and Arizona (some, but not all, of which was struck down in a recent Supreme Court decision) make it a crime to knowingly transport someone who is undocumented “in furtherance of the unlawful presence of the alien.” While there has been substantial debate over what that language means precisely—whether, for example, driving someone to church would qualify, or to English classes, or to the hospital—the courts have not yet offered a definitive response. That the bills specifically exempt certain individuals—first responders, police, child protective services—but not church staff or volunteers could lead a reasonable judge to conclude that ministry-related transportation fits within the activities that Alabama’s law makes punishable, in some cases, by up to ten years in prison.
It doesn’t take a legal scholar to see why this is a religious liberty problem: for most evangelical churches, encouraging folks to bring their friends, neighbors, coworkers, and acquaintances to church is one of our central strategies for evangelism, which in turn is one of the central commands of our faith (Matthew 28:19-20). I’ve certainly brought neighbors and friends to church whom I knew did not have legal status, and that meant transporting them. I’ve also taken sick neighbors—whom I knew to lack legal status—to the hospital in an emergency. The way I read the story of the Good Samaritan—Jesus’ example of what it means to fulfill the Great Commandment’s charge to love our neighbors (Luke 10:25-37)—I think I’d be like the parable’s unloving priest and Levite if I were to make a legalistic excuse for why I would not transport someone in need to get help. As Rick Warren has said, “A good Samaritan doesn’t stop and ask the injured person. ‘Are you legal or illegal?’” But by giving someone a ride to the hospital, at least in certain states, I’d arguably be violating the law. To make a mandatory practice of my faith against the law is an infringement on my religious liberty.
What’s ironic—and sad, to me—is that these bills have been most prevalent not in those corners of our country that many evangelicals think of as secularized and hostile to faith, but in the Bible Belt states of the South where nearly half of the population self-identifies as evangelical. These bills were pushed primarily by members of a party supported by 88% of white Alabamian evangelicals in the last presidential election. American evangelicals are, in many cases, complicit in this dramatic infringement on our own freedom to live out the core convictions of biblical faith.
Furthermore, this isn’t a problem that we can ignore if we’re in the majority of the states which have not yet passed harsh immigration laws modeled on Arizona’s, because many would like to see these laws become the model for national policy. As recently as 2005, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would have made a felon (facing a five year prison sentence) of anyone who “assists… a person to reside in or remain in the United States” with knowledge that they lack legal status. While the bill never passed the Senate and was never signed by the President—and thus averted becoming the law of the land—many churches and Christian ministries feared (legitimately, I think) that their ministry to undocumented immigrants might reasonably be considered “assistance” under the vague language of the law. While one Representative (who voted for the bill) that I spoke with shortly after its passage assured me that she did not intend to criminalize Christian ministry, she should know that it really isn’t up to Members of Congress, once they pass a bill, to clarify their intent: it’d be up to a court to determine what they meant, and a judge reading the plain language of the law might very reasonably have determined that a church that teaches English classes, provides food assistance from a food pantry, or trains immigrants (whom they happen to know lack legal status) for ministry is, in fact, assisting them to reside in the U.S.
I’m grateful that Wheaton College and many other evangelical institutions are taking a stand for religious liberty when it comes to government regulations that would force Christians to buy insurance products that violate our deeply held convictions. I hope that the evangelical community will be just as quick to stand against legislation—whichever party is championing it—that would make it illegal for us to obey God’s many commands to welcome, serve, and love those who are immigrants.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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