Alabama Immigration Law Faces Challenge In Court

Ala.'s controversial immigration law is set to take effect starting September. The U.S. Justice Department, civil rights groups and a coalition of religious leaders are challenging the law in court. Ala. state Rep. Mac Buttram voted for the law. Birmingham pastor R.G. Lyons penned a letter opposing the law, which 150 ministers signed. Both speak with Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, as the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association gathers in Philadelphia, we'll hear from CNN anchor, Don Lemon, just months after he came out of the closet, both as a gay man and as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. He's decided to give the keynote address at that group's annual convention. We'll hear from him in just a few minutes.

But first to Alabama, where another debate over one of this country's most emotional and difficult issues is playing out. We're talking about illegal immigration.

Alabama has adopted a very tough law aimed at discouraging illegal immigration. A federal judge is now deciding whether to block the law from taking effect on September 1st. The Justice Department, civil rights groups, among others, are arguing that the law is unconstitutional. The hearing was Wednesday.

Among those suing to stop the law is a group of local religious leaders who oppose a provision that would make it a crime for anyone to, quote, "conceal, harbor or shield illegal aliens," unquote.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon Alabama State Representative Mac Buttram. He is a Republican who represents the city of Cullman, which is north of Birmingham. He voted for the immigration law. He is also an ordained Methodist minister. He's with us on the line now from Cullman. Welcome, Representative Buttram. Thanks for joining us.

State Representative MAC BUTTRAM: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

MARTIN: We're also joined by R.G. Lyons. He is pastor of Community Church Without Walls in Birmingham. He co-authored a letter sent to Alabama's governor opposing the law. The letter includes the signatures of more than 150 ministers in Alabama, who also oppose the law and he's with us now on the line from member station WBHM in Birmingham. Welcome to you, Pastor Lyons. Thank you so much for joining us, as well.

The Reverend R.G. LYONS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Representative Buttram, I'll start with you. As a supporter of the law, why did you feel it was necessary? And I understand that you're not an attorney, but I did want to ask why you felt that this law was necessary.

BUTTRAM: The problem of illegal immigration throughout the country, I think, is something that needs to be addressed. But here in Alabama, where there are issues with employment and things like that, we felt like it was time for us to do something to stem the tide of illegal immigration in Alabama and not only help the economy in Alabama from a standpoint of what we end up paying out for those who are here illegally, but also to make sure that jobs that are available for immigrants who are here legally and U.S. Alabamians are available. So, it's something that we felt like we needed to address and we did.

MARTIN: Pastor Lyons, you said you consider the law un-Christian. Tell us why, if you would.

LYONS: Well, I think several reasons. One, I think there's a very strong tradition in the Christian faith and in the Christian scripture about being welcoming to the immigrant, welcome to the stranger, welcome to the alien. It's throughout the Old Testament. In the New Testament, you have Jesus telling a familiar story, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the context of commanding people to love their neighbors as themselves. And the example he uses is a Samaritan, a foreigner.

And, you know, for us, the question is what is loving toward our neighbors? If our neighbors are also immigrants, even illegal immigrants, is it loving to deny children the opportunity to go to college? Is it loving to make it illegal to apply for a job? And so, it seems to me that those are not loving actions.

MARTIN: Well, you have a more specific concern, if I have that right, though. I mean, the concern of you and others who share your view is that it would outlaw acts that you consider specific to your calling, which is to offer care to the vulnerable. For example, if someone is hungry, tired, thirsty, you feel that you are called to minister to them regardless of their status. Do I have that right?

LYONS: That's right. There's a provision that makes it a crime to harbor, shield, conceal or transport someone who is here illegally in furtherance of their being here illegally. And so, that's the question that we have. What does it mean to be, you know, to do these actions in furtherance of their being here illegally? Does that mean that if we give somebody a ride to...

MARTIN: To the hospital.

LYONS: ...to the hospital, but also even more broadly. Some of our churches have ministries where we give people rides to job interviews. Is that considered helping them stay here illegally? Is helping people find housing, which some of our churches help people, you know, who are looking for housing find housing. Is that something that's helping people stay here illegally? And so those are some of the concerns that we have is are some of the ministries that we have at our churches - would they be affected by this law?

MARTIN: Representative Buttram, what do you think?

BUTTRAM: Well, of course, the keyword here for me has always been the word illegal. And people who are here illegally need to be deported or go home and come here legally and do whatever jobs are available for them, have the opportunity to do that.

I do not think, certainly, that the law, in my understanding of it and in my support of it, restricts the ministry of the churches in what they do. Here in Cullman, our First United Methodist Church has a very effective Hispanic ministry and, in fact, a lady who's in charge of that ministry is an immigrant herself from Panama and...

MARTIN: Well, can I ask you, though, how do you balance your - one of the reasons, obviously, we called you is that you're both an elected leader and also an ordained minister, you know, in the same faith tradition as many of the people in your community. And so, how do you balance your safe directive from your - against your - you know what I'm saying - against the law, which sometimes does come into conflict, doesn't it? I mean, how do you balance those out? How did you work that out for yourself?

BUTTRAM: Well, I consider myself a disciple of Jesus Christ. I am a person who reads and studies and reflects on the Bible and am serious about my faith and how that impacts my life, the life of my family, the life of my community. And I pray every day for guidance and strength and then when I make decisions that affect - in the case now that I'm an elected official - affect not only people in my District 12 in Cullman County, but all over the state of Alabama. Then I take my Christian commitment in faith and discipleship very, very seriously and...

MARTIN: But to the question of, you know, the judge, for example, asked some tough questions in the course of the hearing, since she didn't rule, but she said she didn't see how a church that unknowingly ministered to an illegal immigrant would be committing a crime. But the fact is, what I hear Pastor Lyons say is that there are those who knowingly minister to people here without proper authorization because they feel that it is part of their Christian duty. So to that question, what do you say to that?

BUTTRAM: I think the key aspect to that part of the law is that they harbor them with the intention of helping them avoid detection. That may not be the exact words, but that is the intent of it, is anybody who says: Oh, you're here illegally. I'm going to do all I can to keep you from getting caught and I'll hide you out if I need to, or those sort of things. Those things are illegal and are forbidden. And anybody thinking in faith or any aspect of life, if they chose to take that approach, then they would be breaking the law.

MARTIN: You don't think someone offering water to someone who is thirsty, offering clothing to someone who was ill-dressed or shelter from a storm? You don't feel that falls under that rule book?

BUTTRAM: No. And there's no requirement that, as a pastor, I or Reverend Lyons or any others say, OK. I need to know whether you're here legally or illegally.

MARTIN: All right. Pastor Lyons, I'm going to give you the final word here.

LYONS: Yeah. I guess the concern is not only just the letter of the law, but how the law affects people's understanding that we've had ministers tell us, in the aftermath of the tornadoes we've had in Alabama, that some people were fearful of taking shelter in the church because of this conversation that's going on in the state. And so, certainly, Mac knows better than I do the nature of the law as a legislator.

But I think there's more, you know, from a faith standpoint. There's more to it than just the actual wording of the law, but it's the implication the law has on people's understanding. Is if this law creates a cultural fear, will people even come to our churches seeking help or will they be afraid that they could, you know, be turned in?

MARTIN: It's a rich and important discussion and I do believe it will continue. I thank you both so much for joining us for this and we hope we'll speak again.

BUTTRAM: Thank you.

MARTIN: R.G. Lyons is the pastor of Community Church Without Walls in Birmingham, Alabama. That's who was speaking just now. He was with us from member station WBHM in Birmingham.

Also with us, Alabama State Representative Mac Buttram. He's a Republican. He represents the city of Cullman. He's also an ordained Methodist minister and he was with us from Cullman. Gentlemen, thank you both so much.

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