On Wednesday, a federal judge upheld the majority of Alabama's controversial immigration law, but temporarily blocked four of its sections. One such section had many pastors and church leaders concerned that they could be criminalized for ministering to illegal immigrants.
One of the sections that Judge Sharon Lovelace, of the Federal District Court in Birmingham, temporarily blocked would make it illegal for anyone to transport or harbor illegal immigrants under certain conditions.
Many churches, especially those that witness specifically to the Spanish-speaking community, are concerned that they will be found in violation of the law for welcoming illegal immigrants into their worship services or for giving them a ride to church when they have no other means of transportation.
Bishop William Willimon, of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church, told the Christian Post Thursday that when Republican Governor Robert Bentley signed the bill into law in June, the impact was felt immediately in some churches.
“We were concerned. The minute the law was passed I started hearing from pastors,” Willimon said.
Willimon teamed up with three other bishops from Alabama's Episcopal and Roman Catholic dioceses who filed a federal court suit against the law on Aug. 1, arguing that it does “irreparable harm” to church members who could potentially be criminalized for trying to help undocumented immigrants.
“One of our congregations, the Sunday after this was passed, had a 50 percent drop in attendance,” he said.
As far as the pastor of that congregation was aware, he said, most of the immigrants in his church were documented, but added that some may have decided to leave the state because they know someone or have someone living in their household that is not.
“They felt intimidated, they felt hurt and they got the message,” Willimon said of other immigrants who were reportedly legal but decided to flee the state.
According to the Pew Research Center, there were 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States as of March 2010. At that time, 120,000 of them lived in Alabama.
Though Alabama doesn't rank among the states with the highest populations of illegal immigrants, the new law is among the broadest and toughest immigration laws in the country.
"Hospitality, reaching out to the stranger and not feeling comfortable bringing people into your house of worship. I don't see how anybody could not recognize a violation of human rights," the Rev. Alice Syltie told WAFF news in Huntsville, Ala.
Even the sections of the law that the judge approved stand opposed to basic human rights, she said.
While many churches remain concerned about the law's impact, some state lawmakers are saying things aren't as bad as they seem.
“It’s not as explicit as the churches would obviously like,” said Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Ala., according to The New York Times. “But I do not think that any church or any clergyman is subject to prosecution for doing their Christian mission.”
According to lawmakers, “harboring” an illegal immigrant is only a crime if it is done with the intent to keep the person shielded or hidden from the authorities. Transporting illegal immigrants would only be considered illegal if the person does so “in furtherance of the unlawful presence” of the immigrant in the United States.
Lawyers for the church leaders, however, say that the law's language is too vague for them to be accepting of it.