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Alabama's new immigration law gets its first test in federal court tomorrow. The Justice Department and civil rights groups are suing to stop what's considered to be the toughest illegal immigration crackdown coming out of any state.
As NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, the law is also being challenged by a Bible Belt institution.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: At First United Methodist Church in downtown Birmingham, clergy from around the city take turns leading a prayer service called in response to the new immigration law.
MALE ONE: Let us pray. (Speaking Spanish)
FEMALE ONE: Lead us to love and not to hate. Lead us to help and not to harass or hinder (unintelligible). There is this great challenge before us, this new effort to legislate who will be fed.
ELLIOTT: Episcopal priest Herman Afanador, Baptist pastor Amanda Duckworth, and Methodist minister Melissa Self Patrick, are part of a growing chorus of critics who say the Alabama law goes too far, criminalizing all kinds of contact with undocumented residents.
It's illegal, for example, to knowingly enter into a contract with, to rent to, to harbor or to transport illegal immigrants.
The state's United Methodist, Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches have sued, arguing it violates their religious freedom.
Reverend Patrick runs the inner city ministry at the United Methodist Church in Birmingham. She says being a good Samaritan could now be illegal.
MELISSA SELF PATRICK: This new legislation goes against the tenants of our Christian faith, to welcome a stranger, to offer hospitality to anyone.
ELLIOTT: Some here see the issue through the lens of Alabama's history, including 71-year-old Lawton Higgs, a retired Methodist minister.
LAWTON HIGGS: And I'm a recovering racist transformed by the great fruits of the Civil Rights movement in this city.
ELLIOTT: Higgs says he and his church were on the wrong side of that moral battle in the 1960s, so he's pleased to see the churches entering the fray now. He likens Alabama's immigration law to Jim Crow, legislating second class status for illegal immigrants.
HIGGS: This is an expression of the spirit of the same, what was called white Southern redeemers.
ELLIOTT: But supporters say that's not a fair way to look at the immigration crackdown.
SHAWN SHELTON: It's not about racism. It is just about citizen rights.
ELLIOTT: Shawn Shelton runs a Christian soccer league in Birmingham. He says the current situation hurts out of work Alabamians and immigrants who came here through legal avenues.
Shelton says this church lawsuit is off base.
SHELTON: It's not a separation of church and state issue here. This is an issue of right or wrong and it is an issue of people's rights, even more so for the illegals. Who are they going to run to and say, well, look, we're only getting paid six dollars an hour with no insurance and it's all under the table?
ELLIOTT: On Birmingham talk radio station WAPI this week, one of the bill's sponsors, State Senator Scott Beason, disputed claims that the law will hinder Christian ministry.
Senator SCOTT BEASON: You can't do things to help people remain in the state illegally and that's a little different than going out and picking some kids up for vacation bible school.
ELLIOTT: A provision to exempt churches was removed for fear it would create a loophole for labor smugglers to claim they were on their way to revival. That's left a lot of ministers to navigate difficult terrain with their congregations.
ROBERT LANCASTER: I'm Robert Lancaster. I'm the pastor here at Elkmont United Methodist, a very evangelical, traditional, conservative congregation, by far.
ELLIOTT: On Tuesday nights, member Brian Williams leads a prayer group at the north Alabama church.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: We're a small country church, but we're doing big things for Jesus.
ELLIOTT: As he and Reverend Lancaster chat, Williams admits that news of the immigration lawsuit brought by his denomination and others comes as a surprise.
WILLIAMS: I was not aware of that. I'm ashamed, but I wasn't.
LANCASTER: I hadn't exactly made that common knowledge because this is a very conservative congregation and from the comments that I've heard, I would say at least half this congregation, if not more, support the new law. So, not a discussion that I really wanted to have at this point.
ELLIOTT: Brian Williams says he supports the new law, especially in a time of economic uncertainty and state budget woes.
WILLIAMS: There can't continue to be a huge influx and a tax on the system that comes out of my paycheck because we just can't sustain it.
ELLIOTT: Still, Reverend Lancaster understands why the United Methodist bishop sued.
LANCASTER: You cannot tell a church that, if there's a man hungry out there, a family hungry out there, that they can't feed them just because they don't have a green card. That's not Christian.
ELLIOTT: The churches may get clarification on the law after a hearing tomorrow in Birmingham. A U.S. district judge is considering whether to stop the law from going into effect September 1st while all the legal challenges are sorted out.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
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