Sanctuary & Religious Liberty

As the Trump administration steps up the enforcement of immigration law, some illegal immigrants have engaged in the time-honored tradition of seeking sanctuary in churches. The idea of churches serving as sanctuary from the state was developed in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and has become embedded in western culture. As would be expected, the granting of sanctuary has created considerable controversy.

Being familiar with the history of oppressive states and injustice, I generally support the idea of sanctuary in its role of providing the individual with another defense against the potential tyranny of the state. Because of this view, I hold that sanctuary should be limited to those who need protection from injustice on the part of the state rather than endorsing blanket sanctuary for anyone for any reason. Judging who is thus worthy of sanctuary (as with any moral assessment) can be rather complicated, but the basic principle is clear enough. Since I regard current immigration policies and practices to be fundamentally unjust, I believe that illegal immigrants who have committed no other crimes are worthy of sanctuary. Since they typically lack the resources to defend themselves, church sanctuary can provide them with the protection they need to make their case and seek justice. Even if sanctuary proves ineffective for a particular immigrant, the granting of sanctuary can make a powerful moral and political statement that can influence immigration policy—hopefully for the better.

As a practical matter, the effectiveness of sanctuary depends on the reluctance of the state to use compulsion to take people from churches. This reluctance might be grounded in many things, ranging from the power of the institution to the negative public reaction that might result from violating sanctuary.

While the notion of sanctuary does enjoy the support of tradition, the easy and obvious counter is to argue that churches should not enjoy a special exemption from the enforcement of the laws. It should not matter whether illegal immigrants are seeking shelter in a church, a Starbucks, an apple grove, or a private home—law enforcement officials should be able to arrest and remove them because they are, by definition, criminals. This view is grounded on the idea that all institutions, religious or not, fall under the laws of the state and are not to be granted special exemptions from the law. But, if exemptions from laws were granted to religious institutions in other areas, then this could be used to justify an exemption for sanctuary.

In the United States religious institutions do, in fact, enjoy special exemptions from taxes and some laws. For example, the Catholic Church is not subject to certain anti-discrimination lawsuits despite restricting certain jobs to men. As another example, there is also an exemption for religious employers in regards to coverage of contraceptive services. There has also been a push for new religious liberty laws that are aimed mainly at allowing people to discriminate against same-sex couples on religious grounds. Such laws grant exemptions based on religion and the arguments used to defend them could, in many cases, be pressed into service as arguments in favor of granting sanctuary to illegal immigrants. For example, if it is argued that exceptions to anti-discrimination laws should be granted to churches and businesses because of religious beliefs about gender and sex, then it would be challenging to argue that an exception to immigration laws should not be granted to churches because of religious beliefs.

The obvious challenge in using the religious liberty and exemption arguments to justify sanctuary is showing that the situations are adequately analogous. This seems easy enough to do. Christians who oppose same-sex marriage cite Leviticus, but Exodus 22:21 is quite clear about how strangers should be treated: “Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Scholars also point to Matthew 25, especially Matthew 25:40 when justifying granting sanctuary to immigrants: “And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” As such, granting churches a sanctuary exemption to immigration laws seems at least as well founded as other attempts to grant religious liberty.

One way to counter this line of argumentation is to argue that there should not be religious exemptions to laws. While this would argue against a religious exemption to immigration laws, it would also apply to all other exemptions and is thus not an option for those who support those other exemptions. Since many of those who are anti-immigrant do favor religious exemptions in general, this option is not open to them.

Another way to counter this line of reasoning is to contend that while religious exemptions should be allowed in other cases, it should not be allowed for granting sanctuary to illegal immigrants. One approach would be a utilitarian argument: the harm done by allowing sanctuary would be sufficient to warrant imposing on religious liberty. Since I have used this argument myself against “religious liberty” laws that make discrimination legal, I certainly must give such an argument due consideration here. As such, if it can be shown that granting illegal immigrants sanctuary would create more harm than would violating the religious liberty of the sanctuary churches (and the harms done to the illegal immigrants) then religious liberty should be violated. But, this approach would need to be applied in a consistent manner: those who argue against sanctuary on the grounds of harms must apply the same principle to all religious liberties.

My overall view of the matter is that since Congress and the President have failed to create a just and rational immigration policy, then citizens have the moral right to offer protection to illegal immigrants (who have not committed other crimes). This must be done until our elected officials do their jobs and create a rational, realistic and ethical system. To be fair, due respect must be offered to those who believe in America first and who do not believe that God was serious when He said “This is my commandment, That you love one another, as I have loved you.”

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  1. A very interesting argument. If religious institutions receive special exceptions form some laws which violate “traditional” religious beliefs, then should these exemptions not also apply to other religious traditions, specifically the right of sanctuary? It is hard to say that women are not harmed by Catholic churches not allowing women to serve as priests, but nonimmigrants are harmed by allowing undocumented sanctuary within a church while they can try and make a legal case to not be deported. Since the sanctuary only applies within the confines of the church, the general public should not be impacted at all.

  2. Unfortunately, politics is usually not a matter of principle. Those who cry for “religious freedom” for their own interests will typically oppose a consistent application of the principle of religious freedom. What they often mean by “I am for religious freedom” is “I want laws that support or match my religion.”

  3. Fascinating. You are perhaps neglecting a key feature in the historical aspect of sanctuary. The tradition arose at a time when the power of rulers – kings mostly- was critically entangled with the church. In essence ‘divine rights’ were claimed by rulers and these ‘rights’ were politically and socially underpinned by the church. Thus, sanctuary within a church building hinged on the ultimate acknowledgment by the ruler of his (usually ‘his’) dependence on the authority of the church for his own. Generally, sanctuary would be granted to a dissident against the ruler rather than a common criminal – though certainly not exclusively. In modern society, at least in ‘the West’, the link between church and state in those terms has long been broken – explicitly so in the USA and France, for example, and tacitly so even here in the UK. This historical trend surely argues against the anachronistic maintenance of ‘sanctuary’ in such states? The affront to state secularism that any religious legal exemptions enjoy seems of fundamental importance. Many of us have liberal views about the often overweening power exerted by the state – secular or not. However, this concern needs expression in a robust and broadly legally acceptable form rather than to medieval notions of ‘sanctuary’. Better to resort to rights of appeal and due process: these need to be reinforced. And away with religion-based special treatment or special pleading in any form.

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