Evangelical advocates for religious liberty and refugee resettlement are dismayed by proposed legislation in South Carolina that could penalize churches that aid exiles from other countries.
The South Carolina Senate passed legislation March 23 to require a sponsoring organization to register a refugee with the state’s Department of Social Services within 30 days after he or she enters the state. In addition, the sponsor would be “strictly liable” in civil court if the refugee commits an act of terrorism or another violent crime.
Senators approved the proposal in a 39-6 vote, with six of the chamber’s 18 Democrats in opposition. The House of Representatives is expected to consider the measure when it returns April 12 from its Easter recess.
While the bill would affect all refugee sponsors, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and others expressed special concern for its potential impact on churches and religious adherents.
ERLC president Russell Moore called the bill “deeply misguided,” particularly in its threat of civil liability for those who serve refugees.
“The legislators are right that the government has a mandate to keep citizens safe,” Moore told Baptist Press in written comments. “The government does not have a mandate, though, to intimidate churches and religious citizens from freely exercising their religion” by ministering to people regardless of their country of origin.
“Whatever one thinks about refugee policy,” Moore said, “this bill is a step backward on religious freedom.”
Jenny Yang, World Relief’s vice president of advocacy and policy, expressed a similar sentiment. The legislation “creates a climate of fear” for people who help refugees, she said. World Relief is the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals.
“The language is so broad it could mean someone who teaches a refugee English or picks up a refugee for [a] church service acts as a ‘refugee sponsor’ who is then liable for any harmful actions that refugee commits later on,” Yang told BP in a March 29 email interview. “It’s punishing the Good Samaritan for acting out of good faith to help a neighbor in need for a harmful action that neighbor commits that is completely outside their control.”
Church volunteers might be “driven to not help at all for fear of being held liable for such actions,” Yang said.
Refugees already receive stringent vetting in the federal Refugee Resettlement Program, Yang said at a Capitol Hill discussion on refugees sponsored by the ERLC in December, noting that before placing a refugee with an agency, the U.S. government follows a 12-step process and takes 18 months to two years.
“Compassion does not have to conflict with national security.” Yang told BP by email. “The U.S. refugee resettlement program has embodied both values and continues to be a valuable humanitarian tool that should be supported.”
Under the legislation, the sponsor of a person in the federal Refugee Resettlement Program will be liable to an injured party if the refugee “acted in a reckless, willful, or grossly negligent manner, committed an act of terrorism … or committed [a violent crime] that resulted in physical harm or injury to a person or damage to or theft of real or personal property.”
After a refugee is enrolled by a sponsor, the Department of Social Services must provide the information to the state’s Law Enforcement Division, which is required to confirm the refugee does not “pose a public safety risk.”
While some of the bill’s Senate sponsors are members of Southern Baptist churches, at least two-thirds of the South Carolina churches that partner with World Relief are Southern Baptist congregations, Jason Lee, state director of the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, told BP in a phone interview.
Lee became director of World Relief’s South Carolina office in Spartanburg a year ago after nearly six years as pastor of Oak Grove Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in the same city. He previously served as a missionary with the International Mission Board and North American Mission Board.
The Senate-endorsed legislation is designed to severely limit refugee resettlement in South Carolina, one Senate sponsor said of the bill’s stated goal to protect the state’s citizens.
“We have de-incentivized the sponsoring of refugees in South Carolina,” said Sen. Kevin Bryant, a Republican representing Anderson. “We’re going to have very few refuges coming to South Carolina.
“I think we need to remember the refugees are not United States citizens,” Bryant said in an online video posted by The Charleston Post and Courier. “With the danger today of a terrorist infiltrating the refugee program, we have no other option than to enroll this information” in a registry.
World Relief, which has received approval to resettle 120 refugees in South Carolina this year, is concerned about the bill, Lee said. Lutheran Services, the only other resettlement agency in the state, has approval to resettle 220 refugees in 2016.
All of the refugee-sponsoring organizations that have worked with World Relief in South Carolina are either churches or Christian groups. Last year, 84 percent of the refugees who were settled in South Carolina through World Relief identified as Christians.
So far, however, no South Carolina churches partnering with World Relief or waiting to help refugees have expressed concern about continuing in the resettlement efforts, Lee said. “There’s been more dismay that [the state is] trying to create another level of government.”
World Relief hopes the House “will look to guard the religious liberty of our churches and try to help continue South Carolina being a welcoming place,” he said.
The legislation “has been debated as a way of keeping South Carolinians safe, but it’s real effect would be to make refugees unwelcome,” Yang said. “There is no due cause to believe that refugees are more criminal than any other individual.
“Putting refugee info in a database to be potentially tracked, for no other reason than one’s having arrived legally through the U.S. refugee program, stigmatizes refugees and runs counter to our most basic humanitarian commitments and priorities to treat war victims, who want nothing more than to start a new life in safe and welcoming communities, as criminals,” she said.
The South Carolina Senate action came barely a week after the ERLC promoted a March 15 prayer for refugees campaign. The ERLC joined with IMB, World Relief and other organizations in urging prayer for the more than 13.5 million Syrians who need humanitarian assistance as a result of the civil war in the Middle Eastern country. The refugee crisis, described as the worst since World War II, has resulted in more than 4.8 million Syrians being registered as refugees by the United Nations.
— Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.