Are Sanctuary Churches Legal?

Are you wondering about sanctuary churches? It's a hot topic that keeps getting hotter.

You may have been hearing a lot about sanctuary cities over the last few months. A sanctuary city is a city that allows sheltering of undocumented immigrants from immigration enforcement. Typically, these cities do not allow municipal funds or resources to be used to enforce federal immigration laws. That means local law enforcement will not target suspected undocumented immigrants or work with other agencies to enforce Federal immigration laws.

Let's get back to sanctuary churches. They’re a hot topic. Some churches are opposed to providing sanctuary and some are in favor. But what does California law state? Would becoming a sanctuary church violate the state’s law? What about Federal laws?

We’ve had a lot of calls from churches that are unsure of how to proceed when it comes to the legality of sanctuary churches and the undocumented immigrants in their volunteer groups or in their congregations. We understand – it’s a confusing and challenging area.

Is Housing or Sheltering Undocumented Immigrants Legal?

2,350,000. That’s the size, according to the Pew Research Center, of the undocumented immigrant population in California as of 2014.

According to Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell Law School, undocumented immigrants do not have legal sanctuary at churches. An undocumented immigrant can be arrested in any house of worship, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim. In fact, the Immigration and Nationality Act prohibits the harboring of undocumented immigrants “in any place, including any building.” Harboring an undocumented immigrant could result in a prison sentence.

Zip codes, in red, where people have signed a pledge to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. This includes offering shelter in churches, homes, hospitals, schools, college campuses and community centers. Submissions as of February 2, 2017 Source: Church World Service, Groundswell

However, since the Federal government can only enforce what’s written in the United States Constitution, as per the 10th Amendment, California’s state government can take a different position. The State can also avoid devoting State resources to any Federal immigration law enforcement efforts. This would make it more difficult for federal agents to enforce Federal immigration laws in the state.

Federal anti-harboring laws, however, make it illegal for anyone to actively hide undocumented immigrants of any age from federal detection.

That hasn’t stopped some California churches from sheltering undocumented immigrants and becoming sanctuary churches. One church in Berkeley built a basement “sanctuary apartment” that can house a family or individual. Even if California opts not to assist Federal agencies in enforcing Federal immigration laws, local agencies could have an issue with scenarios like the one in Berkeley. Local zoning laws may dictate when, how and where people can reside in a building. This means housing undocumented immigrants in a basement that hasn’t been zoned for residential use could violate the law.

Legal Support Options for Ministry Running Sanctuary Churches

Let’s say an undocumented immigrant is found residing in a church building, a clear violation of Federal law. The undocumented immigrant is arrested. That could be the end of it, but what if it’s not? It's possible someone on the board of the church could be arrested as a result of harboring. So, is the church responsible for defending the person that harbored the undocumented immigrant? That's for the board to decide, but if they did ...

Will the church’s insurance company provide legal assistance?

It depends. Your insurance company may not be able cover the legal risk here. Even though some insurance companies cover Religious Freedom, used in cases like transgender bathroom rules or hiring and employment practices, they are bound by their coverage form as applied to the allegations of the claim and may not to be able to respond to criminal prosecution for the violation of a statute or resolution.

It’s hard to know if a ministry or its board will be cited or arrested for running sanctuary churches. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) generally avoids making arrests of undocumented immigrants at “sensitive locations.” These locations include schools or places of worship. However, there have been recent reports of arrests taking place very close to them.

The bottom line? If your church becomes a sanctuary church, it is violating Federal law. It may be violating state and local law. Whether or not anyone from the church would be arrested and prosecuted by either the State of California or the Federal Court system remains to be seen.

What's Happening Now in California with Sanctuary Churches

The California Senate has passed Senate Bill 54. This bill aims to "prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies from using resources to investigate, detain, report or arrest persons for the purposes of immigration enforcement." The bill will next be considered by the state Assembly with a final destination of the governor's office.

According to the Los Angeles Times, a pastor in Los Angeles was arrested "during a routine appointment with an immigration officer Monday." The incident caused many of Los Angeles’ Latino religious community to protest. It appears that clergy in the United States who are undocumented residents may be subject to ICE action even if they are furthering the Kingdom.

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