There has been much talk among conservatives of religious liberty over the past few years with a great deal of fear expressed that religious people would not be able to exercise their freedom of religion in the public sphere. This is a legitimate concern and religious liberty, like all of our freedoms, should not be taken for granted. Rather, we should vigilantly seek to maintain it. That being said, the recent actions of the South Carolina state legislature cause me to question if the next front in the battle over religious liberty might involve the ministry of churches to refugees and immigrants.
The South Carolina General Assembly is working through Bill 997 which states:
TO AMEND CHAPTER 1, TITLE 43 OF THE 1976 CODE, RELATING TO THE DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES, BY ADDING SECTION 43-1-730 TO PROVIDE THAT REFUGEES PLACED IN THIS STATE BY THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT MUST REGISTER WITH THE DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES; TO AMEND TITLE 15, CHAPTER 5 OF THE 1976 CODE, TO PROVIDE CIVIL LIABILITY FOR VOLUNTARY RESETTLEMENT ORGANIZATIONS ARISING FROM THE ACTIONS OF A REFUGEE PLACED IN THIS STATE TO WHOM THE ORGANIZATION PROVIDED SPONSORSHIP OR RESETTLEMENT SERVICES; TO PROHIBIT STATE OR LOCAL FUNDS BEING EXPENDED FOR THE DIRECT OR INDIRECT BENEFIT OF REFUGEES UNTIL LEGISLATION SPECIFICALLY AUTHORIZING THE EXPENDITURE IS ENACTED; AND TO DEFINE NECESSARY TERMS.
Talking Points Memo has a good synopsis of the bill, who supports it, and the arguments for and against it in South Carolina. The expectation is that the Senate will vote on it this week and then it will go to Governor Nikki Haley’s desk to sign or to veto. I think that this is a terrible bill for several reasons.
- It creates an online registry where refugees who have already been strenuously vetted must now have all of their personal contact information available for anyone to look up and find out who they are and where they live. With the current furor that has arisen over refugees entering our country, this could cause these people to be targets for anyone who wants to do them harm.
- It creates “civil liability for voluntary resettlement organizations” who aid the refugees coming into the state if AFTER they were helped they then at some point in the future commit any action that could cause any kind of problem. The resettlement organization is apparently forever responsible for the actions of the refugees even if they only assisted them for a short period of time. This also extends to “sponsorship” which is something that churches participate in in partnership with resettlement organizations like World Relief. Is this bill saying that churches could also be held in civil liability for any action committed in the future by a refugee even after they were sponsored by the church? Or, for an organization like World Relief, which is a Christian organization, will they be held responsible for anything that the refugee might do in the future, even years later? Some of this is unclear and needs to be better explained. Will churches who work with World Relief be held liable if any refugee later commits an act of violence? Or, will civil liability stop with World Relief? I am asking.
- This creates a prejudicial situation based on religion, ethnicity, and country of origin which is clearly unconstitutional. Refugees are people who are legally admitted to the United States. This bill creates a class for them based on their status as refugees that does not apply to others who are also legally admitted. It also casts them as a pariah not worthy of assistance or aid, lest the group helping them be held in civil liability at some point in the future. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, in the testimony for this bill, even said that we didn’t have to worry about Irishmen coming, but we did have to worry about Syrians.
- My biggest question is, “Does this bill violate the religious liberty of Christians who believe that Scripture commands them to minister to and welcome the poor, the needy, and the stranger that would come to them?” These refugees are here legally. They have been vetted and admitted to the United States. In imposing possible civil liability on religious organizations (even churches? I am asking), who help and serve those who have been legally admitted to the United States and who have committed no crimes at the time that assistance was given, are religious liberty rights being violated? That is worth considering.
Religious Liberty does not just involve the freedom to worship or to make lifestyle choices or to have a religious opinion. Religious Liberty involves the freedom to live out one’s faith. When that freedom is infringed upon, it should be recognized and serious questions should be asked and answered. World Relief and Lutheran Services are the two organizations that are resettling refugees in South Carolina. Both organizations are Christian based.World Relief, operating out of Spartanburg, has an explicitly evangelical mission. World Relief also partners with dozens of churches in the Upstate to help receive and care for the refugees who are placed in their local communities. The ministry to refugees and the sojourner is an explicit Christian command found in both the Old and New Testaments. How much authority does the government have to infringe upon that command or to create a climate of fear where anyone ministering to a refugee in the need in the name of Jesus will be held liable for anything that that refugee might one day do?
Leviticus 19:33-34 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Zechariah 7:9-10 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”
Exodus 23:9 “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
Isaiah 16:3-4 “Give counsel; grant justice; make your shade like night at the height of noon; shelter the outcasts; do not reveal the fugitive; let the outcasts of Moab sojourn among you; be a shelter to them from the destroyer. When the oppressor is no more, and destruction has ceased, and he who tramples underfoot has vanished from the land,”
Deuteronomy 10:18-19 “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
Mark 12:30-31 “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Just for context, recent ariel drone footage of the Syrian city of Homs, once home to approximately one million Syrians as recently as 2011, demonstrates why the Syrian refugees had to leave. Utter destruction.
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus was asked the question, “Who is my neighbor?” and he responded by telling the story of a foreigner and religious outcast helping a man who was beaten by robbers and left on the side of the road while being bypassed by the religious leaders who were socially and religiously acceptable. Jesus said that the Good Samaritan was the one who was the neighbor. Jesus both defined how we should treat those in need and also showed that those who are doing what God commands might not be those who are on the inside of religious propriety. Now, what if the man beaten by robbers had one day in the future committed some crime and then the authorities went back and held the Good Samaritan responsible for helping him and saving his life? That is essentially what the South Carolina legislature is proposing.
While not directly outlawing ministry to refugees, the South Carolina legislature is creating a climate that is inhospitable to Christian ministry and the obeying of Scriptural commands by churches, individuals, and Christian-based refugee agencies. The refugee situation is an occasion for the church to step up and serve instead of being intimated into shrinking back out of fear. I call upon the South Carolina Senate to reject this bill and to not infringe upon religious liberty and the obedience of Christians to Scripture in their state. We are not talking about actively bringing in terrorists or people who want to do harm to innocent people. We are talking about creating a situation where anyone who helps those FLEEING from terrorism or violence will operate under a climate of fear and potential future civil liability if the person that they help might one day do something wrong that would be unforeseen to any authorities or possily even to the refugee himself at the time of his assistance. That is terrible public policy, it sets an awful precedent that would have a chilling effect on our entire society, it violates Scriptural commands to love your neighbor and even your enemy and to do good to all, and it tramples on the religious liberty of those trying to love their neighbor – neighbors vetted and legally admitted to our county by our own government.
If this bill passes this week, I pray that Governor Nikki Haley will veto it. This law will not make the people of South Carolina one bit safer. It will only put refugees at risk of vigilante violence and will cause Christian based organizations to potentially not engage in assisting the refugee in their state who has come to them. Religious liberty does not just mean that we can worship as we choose. It also means that we have the freedom to engage in the ministry that God calls us to. While this law would not explicitly outlaw ministry, it would certainly make it much more difficult. That is not good for religious liberty and it is not good for our communities.
Security is important and we should make every effort to make our nation and communities secure and to protect the innocent and the weak. But, religious liberty to follow God, obey Him, and minister to those He calls us to minister to is even more important than safety and security. In this situation, however, we really do not have to choose between the two. I believe that we can have both.
Perhaps our religious liberty will not be taken away by secular progressives who seek to silence Christians, as has been said so often over the past few years. Perhaps we will just give it away because we care more about being “safe” than we care about loving our neighbors and obeying God. I really hope that won’t be the case.