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PCUSA Threatens to Boycott Its Old Kentucky HomeAlan WisdomFebruary 3, 2011
Next Tuesday, February 8, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) representatives will join a rally at the state capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky. Their purpose is to “oppose a state immigration law patterned after the controversial measure adopted last year in Arizona,” according to the official PCUSA News Service. And they will be brandishing a big stick: a threat to take national church meetings away from Kentucky, where the PCUSA headquarters in downtown Louisville is located.
This political confrontation is the outworking of a little-noticed resolution adopted at last year’s PCUSA General Assembly in Minneapolis. The resolution instructed denominational agencies to “[r]efrain from holding national meetings in those states where travel by immigrant Presbyterians or Presbyterians of color or Hispanic ancestry might subject them to harassment due to legislation similar to Arizona Law SB 1070/HB 2162.” That Arizona law directed state and local police, upon reasonable suspicion, to check the immigration status of persons they encounter and to turn those in the country illegally over to federal immigration authorities. The General Assembly resolution alleged that the Arizona law “unfairly targets an entire class of people as potential violators of immigration law.”
Now a similar piece of legislation, SB 6, has passed the Kentucky State Senate and is pending in the State House of Representatives. On January 7, two top PCUSA officials wrote Kentucky legislators to denounce the bill. “This legislation is counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” declared Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons and General Assembly Mission Council Executive Director Linda Valentine.
Parsons and Valentine did not say which specific biblical commands would be violated by stricter local enforcement of federal immigration laws. Instead they offered a personal prediction of dire consequences from the proposed Kentucky legislation:
If adopted, SB 6 would have a chilling effect on the work and worship of churches and entire communities. Local police departments would divert resources to these civil immigration violations rather than focusing on keeping communities safe. The perception of the police among immigrant communities would fundamentally shift, creating an environment of fear where crime would go unreported and victims unassisted.
Who Exactly Is “At Risk”?
The two officials warned that the Kentucky bill would “put at risk not only members of our congregations but the people of the communities in which they serve.” The nature of this risk was not clear in Parsons’ and Valentine’s letter. They had asserted, “We [Presbyterian churches] do not ask the immigration status of those with whom we worship or serve because we wish to live in a community that sees past a person’s immigration status to see the face of God.”
Perhaps the two officials were implying that Presbyterians could be arrested for allowing persons of unknown immigration status to worship in their churches or benefit from church-sponsored programs. Nothing in the Kentucky legislation suggested such a draconian crackdown on open-handed Christian hospitality and charity. But if churches were hiring staff without verifying their immigration status, that omission would be a violation of federal employment law. Parsons and Valentine did not indicate whether they were advocating or condoning churches breaking the law in this manner.
Despite this confusion about what would actually happen under SB 6, the top PCUSA officials were adamant that the bill was an evil to be resisted by all available means. They attempted to wield their economic clout, threatening the state legislators that “if SB 6 is adopted, we would no longer be able to host our national meetings in Kentucky.” Parsons and Valentine estimated the impact: “In a single year, our offices host over 100 meetings resulting in thousands of people traveling to Louisville, staying in area hotels and eating in local restaurants.” All of this business would be taken across the Ohio River to presumably more immigrant-friendly facilities in Indiana, or other states. Just to sharpen their point, the PCUSA stated clerk and executive director stressed, “This [a church boycott of Kentucky] would undoubtedly negatively impact Kentucky’s economy, especially in the Louisville area.”
The PCUSA News Service article on the Kentucky immigration controversy gave almost no information on the content of SB 6. It cited only the critiques of the bill’s opponents. There were no quotes from proponents explaining their intentions in advancing the legislation. Fair-minded Presbyterians would have to do their own research to find out the other side of the debate.
A Closer Look at the Legislation
An examination of the text of SB 6 shows a proposal that is certainly controversial, but nowhere near as extreme as portrayed in the PCUSA officials’ letter. The key phrase is this carefully qualified mandate: “For any lawful contact made by a governmental law enforcement official where reasonable suspicion exists that a person is an unauthorized alien, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person.” The bill would also make it a misdemeanor under Kentucky law to:
Once again, there is a qualification stated. The act is a misdemeanor only “if the person knows or recklessly disregards the fact that the unauthorized alien has come to, entered, or remains in the United States in violation of the law.” Presbyterian deacons who dispense charity to all needy persons without asking their immigration status would not seem to fall in the category of “recklessly disregarding” violations of the law.
A major focus in the proposed Kentucky legislation is to prevent localities from declaring themselves to be “sanctuary cities” that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. One provision states, “No governmental official or agency may adopt a policy, ordinance, resolution, administrative regulation under KRS Chapter 13A, or law that limits or restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws to less than the full extent permitted by federal law.”
The PCUSA News Service article, apparently seeking to demonstrate grassroots involvement in the anti-SB 6 protests, quotes several local Presbyterians. It cites a January 26 resolution of the session of Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church in Louisville, which claims that the Kentucky legislation would “violate the basic tenets of the Christian faith” and “place at risk church members and friends whose faith commitment calls them to reach out without question to serve all of God’s children.” But Crescent Hill is hardly a typical church. The 223-member congregation is in fact a favorite of oldline PCUSA headquarters employees. Three of the 14 members of the Crescent Hill session currently serve on the national church staff.
The two other SB 6 opponents quoted in the news service article are the Rev. Tony Aja of Mid-Kentucky Presbytery and the Rev. Marian McClure of the Kentucky Council of Churches. Both Aja and McClure are former mid- to high-ranking national PCUSA staffers.
It appears that this campaign against the Kentucky immigration bill emanates mainly from a small circle of activists with denominational connections. It was those activists who pushed through the resolution at the last General Assembly that forms the basis of the threatened boycott against Kentucky. Although there was no group in Minneapolis organizing against the resolution, a collection of dissenting commissioners put together a minority report that raised concerns about “responding to this critical issue [of illegal immigration] in ways that may be perceived by many as abrasive, divisive, and unhelpful.” The final assembly vote was 420 to 205 in favor of the boycott resolution.
Presbyterians in the pews would likely take a different view. We do not have specific polling of PCUSA members on immigration issues; however, we do have extensive national polling on immigration, and experience shows that Presbyterians tend to fall near the national averages (or slightly more conservative) on most issues. Those national polls reveal Americans to be deeply divided on the question of whether illegal immigrants should be granted some kind of conditional amnesty. But they are not so divided on the question of immigration enforcement. Until the laws are changed, strong majorities believe they should be obeyed and enforced.
The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported last May:
The public broadly supports a new Arizona law aimed at dealing with illegal immigration and the law’s provisions giving police increased powers to stop and detain people who are suspected of being in the country illegally. Fully 73% say they approve of requiring people to produce documents verifying their legal status if police ask for them. Two-thirds (67%) approve of allowing police to detain anyone who cannot verify their legal status, while 62% approve of allowing police to question people they think may be in the country illegally. After being asked about the law’s provisions, 59% say that, considering everything, they approve of Arizona’s new illegal immigration law while 32% disapprove.
A Rasmussen poll in 2009 showed 68 percent of Americans disapproved of “sanctuary cities” where immigration laws were not enforced.
Complexities Counsel Caution
The Arizona and Kentucky laws raise many questions about which there can be legitimate disagreements among Christians. How extensively should local police be involved in enforcing federal immigration laws? Will immigration enforcement detract from or enhance the enforcement of other laws? In enforcing immigration law, how can police steer clear of “racial profiling” that violates civil rights?
Presbyterians are not of one mind about the answers to these questions. The Scriptures, which are to be their sole authority for faith and practice, do not supply a blueprint for U.S. immigration policy in the 21st century. Here is the IRD’s humble attempt to sort through the complexities of these issues and find those points where Christians have and do not have consensus.
In such a situation of complexity and uncertainty and disagreement, it would seem wise for church officials to speak more cautiously. Threatening boycotts and hurling harsh condemnations of legislation as “counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ” would not seem to be the most productive approach. But when a small circle of activists drives the process at General Assembly and in the national church agencies, this politics of confrontation is the result that we get.
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