Immigrants– and Christian Charity –Unwelcome in Alabama
Sharon L. Blackburn, a federal judge in Alabama, has temporarily blocked a controversial state law that has been called the toughest immigration statute in the nation. The injunction will remain in effect until September 29, when the court will enter a ruling. Signed by Governor Robert Bentley, the Alabama law criminalizes those who knowingly employ, harbor, or transport people they know to be illegal immigrants.
In response to passage of the law, Alabama’s Episcopal, Methodist, and Roman Catholic churches have sued the state, arguing that the law is unconstitutional because it violates their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. The churches argue that the law criminalizes core practices of Christianity such as providing food, clothing, shelter, and transportation to the needy.
The bible, you see, does not differentiate between citizens and non-citizens when it comes to helping the needy.
While nearly every blog and news network ran something about this story, nobody has yet analyzed the likelihood of success for the churches’ claim. We will.
The Supreme Court has handled cases of this nature since as far back as 1879, when it decided the constitutionality of the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, passed by Congress in 1862. The act outlawed polygamy, and Mormons argued that it was unconstitutional because it deprived them of their First Amendment right to freely practice their religion. A Mormon plaintiff, who ignored the statute, was indicted, and the Utah Supreme Court upheld the indictment. When the case reached the United States Supreme Court, the Court held that duties of a religion were not a suitable defense to a statute. “Religious belief cannot be accepted as a justification of an overt act,” the opinion said. With this reasoning in mind, even though helping the needy (an overt act) is a pillar of Christianity, religious mandates are not a suitable defense to the Alabama law.
Over a century later, in 1990, the Supreme Court heard a similar case, and came to the same conclusion. In Employment Division v. Smith, the Court upheld an Oregon drug law against a challenge by Native Americans who sought a religious exemption from the prohibition on the use of peyote, a drug known for its psychoactive properties when ingested. Native Americans utilized peyote as a “sacred medicine,” which was used to combat spiritual, physical and other social ills. The Court said that since the Oregon law did not intentionally target Native Americans’ religion or culture, the law was constitutional. Likewise, the law in Alabama outlaws all harboring of illegal immigrants, by all Alabamans, religious and non-religious groups alike. Based on case law then, since no religion has been targeted, the law will likely be upheld.
In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to ensure that general laws, like the one at issue in Smith, do not restrict the practice of religion. RFRA required state governments to put forth a compelling reason for the general law before it could infringe on a religious practice. But in City of Boerne (1997), the Supreme Court found RFRA to be unconstitutional because it exceeded Congress’s power under the Enforcement Clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. The Court found, because there was no detailed example of religious bigotry necessitating RFRA, the stringent requirements under RFRA infringed upon traditional powers of the state to regulate the health and welfare of their citizens.
So far, then, things aren’t looking good for the Alabama churches in this case, but we think they have a chance if they concentrate on the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The Supremacy Clause says that the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes are “the supreme law of the land”; when a federal and state law conflict, the federal law controls. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled in Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council that even when a state law is not in direct conflict with a federal law, the state law can still be found unconstitutional under the Supremacy Clause if the state law is an obstacle to the objectives of the federal government. In the case against Alabama, the churches could argue that the Alabama law is invalid under Crosby because the state law is regulating illegal immigration in a way that is at odds with the federal government’s regulation of illegal immigration.
We’re not saying this argument’s a winner, but it could be worth a shot.
After all, another southern judge saw it that way. In Georgia, HB 87, a law similar to Alabama’s immigration law, was partially blocked by federal judge Thomas Thrash, Jr. Although he allowed portions of the law to go into effect, he blocked the most controversial clauses, which included one that, like Alabama’s, would punish people who knowingly transport or house illegal immigrants. The judge reasoned that the federal government is the body with the power to deal with illegal immigration, not the state.