(Photo: Reuters / Gael Gonzalez)
Hispanic congregations in Alabama are reporting declining numbers of worshippers under the enactment of the state's controversial immigration law, one of the strictest in the nation.
Pastor Gomez of First Baptist Church of Center Point said that many of his congregants left because of the law.
"I called them back and some of them returned. But I know of another ministry that is close to me here in town that had around 120, and now it has about 40," said Gomez to Baptist Press.
Last year, as many state legislatures considered bills that would increase regulation on immigration, the Alabama legislature introduced HB 56. Known also as the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, it was hailed by many to be the strictest immigration bill in the United States.
The bill, which would pass the legislature and be signed into law by Governor Robert Bentley in June 2011, would allow police to demand proof of legal residency for Alabama residents. It also made it a crime for anyone to transport, conceal, harbor or shield an illegal immigrant.
In addition to civil liberties groups, there was also a faith-based backlash to HB 56. In August 2011, several faith leaders from the Episcopalian, Methodist and Roman Catholic churches in Alabama filed a suit against the immigration law. The ecumenical group argued that the law made it illegal for them to administer sacraments to illegal immigrants, thus involving an unhealthy interference by the state in church matters.
In December of that year, a federal judge would strike down parts of the immigration law, such as people paying for their annual mobile home registration tags having to prove their legal residency.
Attorney General Luther Strange eventually released a memo stating that he would look into changes for the law so as to make it more enforceable and to nullify "unintended consequences." Even with changes being considered by the 2012 session of the legislature, repeal is not being strongly considered by lawmakers.
"Although we welcome any effort to lessen the inhumane impact of HB 56, the suggestions don't go nearly far enough, as they leave in place several of the worst provisions of the law and maintain Alabama's unconstitutional intent to drive immigrants out of the state," said Justin Cox, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, in an earlier interview with The Christian Post.