When the law makes following Scripture a crime

You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt.y I, the LORD, am your God. Leviticus 19:34

During my visit to Ireland for the Eucharistic Congress my blog will consist of some instances of attacks on our religious liberty both here and abroad reported by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. My previous blogs on attacks on our religious freedom have been historical. This blog and the following one are not history, they are current events.


National and local Catholic charitable agencies around the country have long provided services to people in need, regardless of immigration status. However, several states have recently passed laws that forbid what state legislatures consider “harboring” of undocumented immigrants—and what the Church considers Christian charity and pastoral care to those immigrants.

In Alabama, for example, the Catholic bishops, in cooperation with the Episcopal and Methodist bishops of Alabama, filed suit against a law prohibiting “harboring” of undocumented immigrants. Together, they explained that the new “law makes illegal the exercise of our Christian religion which we, as citizens of Alabama, have a right to follow.” They expressed concern that legally prohibited “harboring” (when there is knowledge or reckless disregard of the fact that persons are undocumented immigrants) could include “almost everything which would assist an undocumented immigrant or encourage an undocumented immigrant to live in Alabama.”

The law would have a chilling effect on their ministries— among other things, these church leaders feared that the prohibition on “harboring” would extend to activities like “encourag[ing immigrants] to attend Mass or giv[ing] them a ride to Mass;” “counsel[ing] them in times of difficulty or in preparation for marriage;” and inviting “them to come to Alcoholic Anonymous meetings or other recovery groups at our churches.”

Other states have adopted similar laws that threaten the Church’s ministry to undocumented immigrants. On March 27, 2012, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and several other Christian denominations filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Arizona v. United States. The brief discusses how the Arizona law and many state immigration laws like it threaten the Catholic mission to provide food, shelter, and other care to all. Aside from Alabama and Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Utah have enacted laws that generally make criminal the “harboring” of undocumented immigrants. Is our most cherished freedom truly under threat?

Among many current challenges, these state immigration laws affect the religious liberty of the Church because they have criminalized certain acts of Christian charity and pastoral care. Religious liberty is more than freedom of worship; it includes our ability to make our contribution to the common good of all Americans without having to compromise our faith. Without religious liberty properly understood, all of us suffer, including those who seek a better life here in the United States.

What can you do to ensure the protection of religious freedom? The U.S. Bishops have called for a Fortnight for Freedom from June 21 to July 4. Please visit www.fortnight4freedom.org for more information on this important time of prayer, education, and action in support of religious liberty!

This post is also available in/Esta entrada también está disponible en: Spanish

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  1. mary says

    The Bishops should continue to exercise their Catholic faith by providing those services which will feed, clothe, and shelter those immigrants while they also provide them with the means to return to their countries of origin. The U.S. has a reasonable immigration policy to allow an orderly path to immigration and eventual citizenship,though it does take time and effort. If the Bishops disagree with this policy, they should press to have it updated through the political process. They should also press the countries of origin, particularly Mexico, to study why their population is so despairing of their life that they would risk illegally entering another country.
    It seems to me that the problem is with the country of origin not with the immigration policies of the U.S., or the states that try to control the problem.

    • says

      Mary: Your comments seem to place an unreasonable burden on Catholic charity restricting it to large-scale, general efforts and preventing it from exercising charity in specific cases where illegals are involved. Disapproval of someone being in this country illegally does not mean you cannot, should not or should not be allowed to e.g. offer them a ride to Mass.

  2. Mary O'Brien says

    With respect,
    I am not sure that the aliens referred to in the Bible were illegal aliens who, by asking for assistance, put you in the position of breaking the law yourself.
    Feed the hungry, of course.
    Clothe the poor, of course.
    Be kind and helpful to the alien (meaning new guy, stranger from strange land with different customs), of course.
    The illegal aliens referred to in the piece are not political or religious refugees. They did not flee their country because of great famine. The aliens referred to entered this country illegally and are not in the process of applying for legal status. They are here illegally, they are lawbreakers. These people do not meet the standards for traditional church sanctuary. Yes, Jesus ate with undesirable people, but he also said ‘give to Caesar that which is Caesar” which has been used for almost two thousand years to teach respect and compliance with the local laws.
    Perhaps we could help these people get back home safely? Drill a new well for their farm or village? Help them acquire healthy livestock? Organize and staff a new school in their hometown? Organize and run a co-op so local families can earn a living?

    But we should not help others break the law.

  3. says

    Very enlightenng.

    This is excellent, Bishop Farrell! I’m giving a talk next week at our Stand Up for Religious Freedom Rally in Johnson City, TN and I will include your insight about “harboring” illegal immigrants. I am 100% in favor of the fair enforcement of just measures against people entering or remaining in this country in defiance of law, but no law can make the Works of Mercy illegal. These laws have to be amended and carefully clarified so as not to have a chilling effect on the Church’s liberty to carry out her mission.

    Gracias a Dio y gracias a ti.