Episcopal, Roman Catholic and United Methodist bishops who filed a federal lawsuit two years ago trying to stop enforcement of Alabama’s immigration law say they feel vindicated.
“Our concern was primarily the infringement on the obligation of the church to take care of people regardless of their status,” said retired Episcopal Bishop Henry N. Parsley, who still lives in Birmingham. “I feel like our concerns have been upheld by the court process.”
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Alabama’s appeal of a ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had blocked key sections of the law that the bishops had opposed. The bishops opposed a section of the law that outlawed “transporting unlawfully present aliens” or “harboring” them, along with a section that outlawed having a contract with illegal immigrants.
The bishops said that ministries to immigrants would be harmed by those provisions and that church employees and volunteers could have been subjected to prosecution.
The lawsuit by the coalition of bishops was dismissed by U.S. Judge Sharon Blackburn.
“She said that we had no standing because it didn’t apply to us,” said Catholic Bishop Robert J. Baker, head of the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham. “We feared we would be accused of harboring and transporting just by ministering to people.”
The lawsuit was filed by Parsley; Baker; the Rev. William H. Willimon, who was at the time bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church; and the Most Rev. Thomas J. Rodi, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Mobile.
“I do feel vindicated,” said Willimon, who has returned to his post as dean of chapel at Duke Divinity School. After passage of HB56, Willimon called it the “meanest” immigration law in the nation.
But the blocking of the sections of the law church leaders found most objectionable does not undo the damage, he said.
“I feel like the damage has been done to Alabama and is continuing to be done, to the economy, to the state’s image, and damage we felt in the churches to our Hispanic congregations; That’s regrettable,” Willimon said.
“Our concern was primarily the infringement on the obligation of the church to take care of people regardless of their status,” Parsley said. “I feel like our concerns have been upheld by the court process.”
His successor, Episcopal Bishop Kee Sloan, said the state Legislature had overstepped.
“The church has no business telling the state how to function,” Sloan said. “In the same way, the government shouldn’t be telling the church what they can and can’t do.”
Baker said the government had put churches in a vulnerable position for living out the scriptural mandate to help the poor and outcast.
“We don’t card people who walk into church,” Baker said. “We just provide services to them. The way it was framed we felt would put us under a cloud.”
Parsley said all of the bishops felt a backlash in their denominations from supporters of the harsh immigration law.
“It was a little controversial,” Parsley said. “The prophet Micah reminds us:
‘Do justice and love mercy.’ I think that’s what this is all about.”