Yesterday, Alabama’s House of Representatives passedHB 658, which makes minor tweaks to HB 56, the draconian anti-immigrant law enacted last year. Unfortunately, as this report from WTVY makes clear, the law would still criminalize people of faith for caring for their neighbors:
Faith leaders have been telling their legislators that these laws violate their religious beliefs. Yesterday’s legislative action in the House was a sad victory for cruel politics. Let’s hope the Alabama Senate chooses compassion over political ideology.
On Wednesday, the Alabama House held multiple hearings on HB 56, the harsh anti-immigrant law enacted last year. Conservatives have offered a few cosmetic tweaks that fail to substantively change the law. In a sign of just how unpopular the law is, the speakers at one committee’s hearing were dominated by opponents of the law. One of those witnesses, Rev. Stephen Jones, who earlier appeared in a TV ad by faith leaders opposing the law, offered this testimony:
JONES: I don’t think this bill reflects who we are in Alabama. We talk a lot about God. In fact the day this bill was introduced on this floor I’m the one that had the prayer that opened this with a prayer. Then we come back with a bill that looks very much not like who we are as a religious people.
Now I’m a Christian so I’m looking at it from a Christian perspective. And I recognize the Christ who said I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. And more importantly I was a stranger and you welcomed me. What you have one to the least of these you have done unto me.
I’m calling on religious people in this state to be honest about their faith. To take the politics out of it and if this is who you say you are religiously you have to stand against this.
A recent front page story in the New York Times calls attention to a troubling trend I’ve frequently noted – how a mobilized Catholic right targets social justice organizations and religious progressives to advance a narrow ideological agenda.
In this latest case, the victim is a small nonprofit organization in rural southwestern Colorado that helps poor Hispanic immigrants with basic needs. The group, Compañeros, was recently told by the Diocese of Pueblo that its financing from the U.S. Catholic bishops’ national anti-poverty campaign was in danger because it’s also a member of an immigration advocacy umbrella group which opposes discrimination against LGBT immigrants and supports same-sex civil unions.
The Catholic Campaign, which doles out $8 million annually to about 250 groups nationwide, has been under increasing pressure from conservative Catholic groups to ensure that it is not unwittingly aiding organizations that run afoul of church positions on issues like birth control and marriage… Since 2010, nine groups from across the country have lost financing from the campaign because of conflicts with Catholic principles, according to the campaign’s director, Ralph McCloud.
Compañeros was told that unless it withdrew from the coalition, Ms. Mosher said, the group would lose money it got each year. “I was shocked that our money was all of a sudden in jeopardy, and confused about why,” Ms. Mosher said. “We have no reason to believe that we are in any way going against Catholic teachings. If they are willing to defund our program based on an affiliation, it sends a clear message of divisiveness.” Debate over the church’s vaunted antipoverty campaign, which was begun by the bishops’ conference in 1970, has taken a more contentious turn in recent years. Conservative Catholics, with the help of search engines and other Web sites, have become more aggressive in tracking the activities of groups that receive funds from the campaign, while some groups have found themselves forced to defend their work.
The news that Compañeros faces potential defunding comes just a month after the Sacramento Bee reported that the city’s Catholic diocese will no longer fund programs at Francis House, a nonprofit agency that serves the homeless, because its executive director (who is not Catholic) has expressed support for abortion rights and gay marriage. In recent years, conservative Catholic activists who fancy themselves defenders of orthodoxy have even gone after Catholic bishops and prominent staffers at the U.S. bishops’ conference.
Bryan Cones, managing editor of U.S. Catholic magazine, correctly warns that the Catholic Church also risks undercutting vital interfaith efforts to address poverty by putting rigid purity tests before service to the poor.
With so many mainline and even evangelical Christians having discerned different responses to disputed moral questions such as abortion and same-sex marriage, how could any Catholic organization possibly partner in joint projects of Christian service? It is one thing to insist on strict adherence in the public sphere to Catholic teaching for one’s own employees, but to impose it on others as a condition of partnership is a step too far. The Diocese of Sacramento’s decision is a poor one, pure and simple, reflecting the narrowest possible approach to Catholic engagement with the world around us. It is a choice that places ideology over service to those most in need, and it diminishes the church’s moral standing as an advocate for and servant to Jesus’ most vulnerable brothers and sisters.
Catholic progressives are mobilizing in response. Catholics United has launched a new campaign – With Charity for All – that is collecting donations to help offset the potential loss of funding to Compañeros.
We’ve reached a sad place if the Catholic Church’s historic commitment to social justice and the common good is jeopardized by culture war politics and guilt-by-association tactics at a time of growing income inequality and staggering poverty.
The faith community has coalesced in opposition to HB-56, the extreme anti-immigrant law enacted by Alabama’s legislature and governor last year. Religious leaders are concerned both about how the law criminalizes their ministry and the larger moral questions such harsh legislation raises. Their voices have been unified, loud, and clear, but recent accounts in the media might leave you with a different impressions.
The group called Faith Leaders for a Welcoming Alabama says the law is having far-reaching negative impacts on the state. About 25 so-called faith leaders are part of the group that sponsored the ad.
This is not only unprofessional, it’s insulting. The faith leaders behind the ad are prominently listed on the campaign’s website with their city and church. They could all be independently verified by even the most amateur of journalists or researchers. Royer’s blatant denigration of these faith leaders is a shameful reflection on him and his network.
Even more egregiously, the Associated Press published a story looking at the “reforms” to the law being pushed by conservatives in the state legislature. The article was titled “Ala. immigration changes address religious concern.”
Yet the substance of the article clearly demonstrates that “changes” have done anything but!
The only source that claims so is an adviser to Governor Robert Bentley, an advocate for the law, who is clearly trying to spin the recent bill as having solved the problem. The story then goes on to extensively quote faith leaders speaking passionately about the severity of the problems encapsulated by the law, problems that they insist continue to exist despite nominal “reforms:”
The Rev. Angie Wright from the Beloved Community United Church of Christ in Birmingham said the changes don’t go far enough and in some cases make the law harsher. That includes levying a felony punishment for aiding five illegal immigrants, when the current law provides for aiding 10 or more.
“It is deeply disturbing to me, especially during Holy Week, that legislators have shown no remorse for the massive suffering caused by HB56,” she said, referring to the bill number for the law.
Wright is an organizer of Faith Leaders for a Welcoming Alabama, which is running TV ads criticizing the law. She said the proposed changes won’t stop criticism because even if the changes are enacted, the law will still interfere with the role of churches by creating fear in immigrant communities.
“This is the work of the Lord — looking after the least of these,” she said.
Kitty Rogers Brown, an attorney for Episcopal Bishop Henry Parsley Jr. of the Diocese of Alabama, said Friday the revision legislation is a sign that state officials are listening to religious leaders’ concerns. “But it does not go far enough,” she said.
Brown said some of the changes appear to offer protection to church leaders, but the wording of the bill makes her concerned the protection is not extended to church members.
Political issues and legislative processes are complex. People depend on the media for accurate information to help them understand the policies supported by their elected officials. These two instances of sloppy journalism reveal how the media contributes to the public’s confusion around a particular issue, particularly when Southern faith leaders don’t neatly fit the stereotype of being uniformly conservative.
Earlier this week, a coalition of faith leaders from across Alabama released a new TV ad calling on the Alabama legislators to end harsh immigration policies that don’t reflect their values. The ad points out how the law goes so far as to even criminalize religious acts of charity.
Instead of listening to the concerns of the religious community and seeking a fresh start, a sponsor of the bill flippantly dismissed them. According to WNCF:
The sponsor of the bill, Representative Mickey Hammond [sic], (R ) District 4, says the group behind the TV ad doesn’t understand the law.
“We are going to come up with clarifications and simplifications that will make the law easier to enforce and easier to understand and we’ll clear up some of the confusion about the intent of the law”
Hammon’s response is not only insulting but misleading. The faith leaders’ interpretation on the provisions and purpose on the law is based on the clearly stated intentions of Alabama legislators like Rep. Hammon himself, who has openly bragged about these provisions as an “Alabama flavor” that makes the law even better than its Arizona counterpart.
The story goes on to quote, Rev. Ron Higey, a conservative pastor in Birmingham and member of the new coalition running the ad, as saying:
“From a Christian faith perspective I cannot comfortably explain why we would treat others the way this law wants us to treat them harshly, impunitively [sic] knowing that we will have to give an account to God.”
Higey’s remarks show a clear understanding of the law’s harsh nature and immoral consequences. Rep. Hammon should spend more time actually listening to the faith community’s concerns and less time defending an extreme law that harms children and hurts the state economically.