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Christian leaders struggle with immigration law

Churches seek to balance legal, humanitarian needs

POSTED: July 3, 2011 12:45 a.m.

As a Republican mayor of a small southwest Georgia town stood on the steps of a federal courthouse in downtown Atlanta nearly two weeks ago, he spoke words meant to strike a blow more powerful than any political rhetoric.

Uvalda Mayor Paul Bridges used political buzzwords like "unfunded mandate" for local police to enforce Georgia's new anti-illegal immigration law. But his argument tugged even more so at the conscience of conservative Georgians whose political ideologies are often interwoven with their religious beliefs.

"It's unconscionable," said Bridges, who is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state's effort to enforce parts of House Bill 87. "It's also un-Christian."

Much of House Bill 87 was allowed to go into effect Friday, but two key parts of the law were put on hold earlier last week while a judge decides whether the state has the authority to enforce them.

Those two sections, a) allow local police to check the legal status of any suspect and arrest anyone found to be in the country illegally; and b) make it a crime for anyone to give a known illegal immigrant a ride.

But while the bill's integrity is decided in court, Christians in Northeast Georgia, and across the country, are weighing the issue of illegal immigration in their hearts and in their churches.

While compassion towards those in need pervades Christian culture, respecting the law is also a guiding principle of the faith.

The rule for bringing those ideals together isn't always clearly defined.

Based on an ‘obsession'

At a local Catholic church, Father Jaime Barona says even members of his mostly-Hispanic congregation are divided over the issue of House Bill 87.

Barona, himself, has taken a stand against the bill and its supporters.

"It's all based in political interests, racial hatred, discrimination and actually, an obsession - an obsession - to uphold the law," said Barona, who leads the congregation of St. Michael Catholic Church in Gainesville.

"One of the arguments is these people are illegal here, and according to the law, if you're illegal and here, you shouldn't be here. That's what the law says, and rightly so. But behind that breaking of the law, there are many human variables."

Gov. Nathan Deal, who signed the bill in May and championed immigration reform during his campaign last year, attends First Baptist Church on Green Street.

But the governor was undeterred by Bridges'
remarks that House Bill 87 contradicted Christian values and Barona's claim that the law is birthed of hatred.

The bill, Deal said, was about solving a legal problem.

"This is Georgia taking a stand," the governor said in a June 22 interview.

"Our government is founded on not supporting religion, but in supporting the rule of law. And this legislation is doing just that - supporting the rule of law."

The Rev. Bill Coates, who is Deal's pastor at First Baptist Church, agrees with the governor's expressed need to uphold the law and the desire to separate church from state. He, too, steers clear of political issues in the pulpit.

But knowing his parishioner, Coates said he suspects that Deal didn't completely ignore his religious values when he signed the bill.

"Our religious principles have always informed our decisions in this country and should continue to," Coates said.

SBC takes a fresh stand

Such an idea is evident in religious organizations' involvement with politics, especially on a federal level.

One of the most influential religious organizations within the Republican Party has already begun to draw clear lines on how it expects lawmakers to act on illegal immigration.

Last month, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention took a stand, urging federal lawmakers to create for the country's illegal immigrants "a just and compassionate path to legal status."

Again last week, a leader with the convention said the group would likely support a version of the DREAM Act, which makes it possible for illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children earn legal status by going to college or joining the military, according to a report from the Associated Press.

The statements seem to be a shift in the group's thinking from its position of five years ago. In 2006, the SBC urged lawmakers to secure the country's borders and target employers of illegal immigrants. It left in the hands of churches the need to show compassion toward illegal immigrants.

At this year's mid-June meeting in Arizona, the convention dropped the term "illegal" used in the 2006 resolution, replacing it with a less criminalizing term, "undocumented."

The group stopped short of encouraging any offer of amnesty for those who have come to the U.S. outside of the legal process, however. The law was still to be respected.

"You'll find in our churches a strong conviction that laws are important, that we are to be good citizens," said Jo Jo Thomas, the director of missions for the Chattahoochee Baptist Association. "We take that very seriously in all matters. Immigration would just be one example of that."

Seeking a ‘middle ground'

The Chattahoochee Baptist Association is the local arm of the Georgia Baptist Convention, which, in turn, is the state-level subsidiary of the larger Southern Baptist Convention.

In the New Testament of the Bible, the Apostle Paul writes about the role of government and the responsibility of Christians to respect governing authorities, Thomas points out.

And while Thomas believes that the ability to live in peace with one's family is part of God's law, his personal opinion is that citizenship is not a God-given right.

"There's a difference in between the issues of the God-given rights of existence and compassion and the rights and privileges of citizenship," Thomas said.

"It's not true that our country or any one country on the face of the globe could just care for everybody without regard to what our resources are. And when we try to do that, we do take away from the people who are citizens legally, and that should be considered."

Coates, too, said he understands the need to uphold the law. He also says people coming to the United States seeking a better life should come legally. He, too, is concerned about the drain illegal immigration could have on the state's resources.

But Coates said the issue has gray areas that are difficult to delineate for religious leaders and lawmakers. He is concerned about the way the law will affect children of illegal immigrants brought into the United States illegally at a young age but who only know life as Americans.

"I think there is a good, compassionate middle ground that we're going to have to reach and I believe that eventually we will," Coates said.

It might be the courts, new legislation or the governor, even, that moves Georgia toward that middle ground, Coates said.

"I think eventually that's where we're going to have to go," Coates said. "I think it's important that we go there."



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