Churches sue to stop Ala. immigration law

Gov. Robert Bentley, R-AL, signs HB 56 into law.
Gov. Robert Bentley, R-AL, signs HB 56 into law.

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - A new round of lawsuits targeting Alabama's tough, new immigration law is being filed by leaders of the Episcopal, Methodist and Roman Catholic churches of Alabama.

The law doesn't take effect until September, but many groups are already taking legal action to block its enforcement.

The newest suit, filed in federal court on behalf of Bishop Henry Parsley, Jr., of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Alabama; Bishop William Willimon, of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church; Archbishop Thomas Rodi, of the Mobile Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church in Alabama; and Bishop Robert Baker, of the Birmingham Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church in Alabama, says the law violates the free exercise of religion.

The bishops, who claim 338,000 Alabama residents as members of their church, called the new law "the nation's most merciless anti-immigration legislation."   

The law's primary sponsor, House Majority Leader Micky Hammon (R-Decatur), said he was disappointed the churches would file suit. "This lawsuit does not represent the views of the thousands of Alabamians of all faiths and religions who have reached out to legislators...  These devout Alabamians, whose belief in our Lord's teachings cannot be questioned, understand that illegal immigration can no longer go unchecked."

An attorney representing Bishop Parsley, Augusta Dowd, said the law will keep Alabama citizens from being able to practice their Christian faith, a violation of their First Amendment rights.

The plaintiffs argue the law, "...aims to shut the doors of our churches and social ministries, against our wills, to a whole class of people, denying them access to such basic human needs as food, clothing, shelter, and, most importantly, worship of God."

Bishop Willimon said, "To forbid members of Alabama's faith communities from providing these charitable services will violate their sincere religious belief in helping others without reservation."

"Many are confused about what the law actually does because so many facts have been misrepresented in order to generate fear and anger," said Todd Stacy, spokesman for Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn).

Stacy accused some groups of politicizing issues such as the April 27 tornadoes that killed hundreds. "They do this because it's hard to convince Alabamians that it is somehow unfair to require proof of legal residency from those wishing to receive public benefits, or that it is somehow discriminatory to require employers to hire only legal, documented workers."

"We do need sensible immigration reform," said Bishop Parsley, "but the new Anti-Immigration Act criminalizes the Church's mission."

"I deeply respect these men of Christ and the churches they represent," Rep. Hammon said, "but illegal immigration is a law enforcement matter that must be addressed without hesitation.

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