A United Methodist church offers transportation for community members to attend a live Nativity production it hosts every year.
A Southern Baptist church offers classes in English to individuals who want to improve their English. As part of the program, church members sometimes drive their neighbors to the classes.
A Nazarene church sends a bus into the community to bring children to its school during the week and families to worship services on Sundays.
A Christian nonprofit organization drives people to job interviews and doctors' appointments.
But many Christians in Florida worry that they could soon find themselves charged with a crime for participating in outreach events like these. A bill being considered in the Florida Senate would make it a third-degree felony for a driver to transport anyone they know or "reasonably should know" is not in the country legally.
Senate Bill 1718, which has passed a committee vote and is now winding its way through the legislative process, includes multiple provisions targeting individuals who cannot "provide proof of lawful presence in the United States." The bill would increase fines for employers who hire such individuals, require hospitals to "collect patient immigration status data information," and crack down on "human smuggling," making it a third-degree felony for "anyone who helps bring or attempt to bring a noncitizen into the U.S. at some non-designated place without inspection by a U.S. official at a border, port, or other point of entry."
But it's the language in Section 10 of the bill that is setting off alarm bells in churches and Christian organizations across the state. That section makes it a serious crime to transport "into or within this state an individual whom the person knows, or reasonably should know, has entered the United States in violation of law and has not been inspected by the Federal Government since his or her unlawful entry from another country."
According to Matthew Soerens of the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT), "this bill would essentially make it a third-degree felony—punishable by up to five years in prison—for anyone (even a pastor or church-based volunteer) to give a ride to church to someone whom he or she knew (or reasonably should have known) entered the country unlawfully."
A 10-year-old alliance that describes itself as a "broad coalition of evangelical organizations and leaders advocating for immigration reform consistent with biblical values," the EIT took part in a "virtual" press call on March 30 to urge Florida lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis to reconsider the bill or to amend it "to eliminate threats to the freedom of churches and other religiously-motivated organizations and individuals that serve immigrants."
The virtual press conference, hosted by EIT and World Relief, brought together pastors and Christian leaders from across Florida to discuss how the current bill could affect their ministries. According to a press release posted on the EIT website, Dale Schaeffer, district superintendent, Florida District, Church of the Nazarene, said, "As it is currently written, SB 1718 could be interpreted to mean that it would be a felony to pick up teenagers for youth ministries, drive an elderly congregant to church or a doctor's appointment, or drive a child to school if the driver knew or suspected that the individual had not been allowed to enter the country lawfully.
"Recently, a church asked me if they should disband their transportation ministries entirely because of similar liability-related concerns," Schaeffer noted. "Providing transportation to congregants and community members is essential to how Christians in our churches live out their faith. Without additional protections being added to align the bill with the federal anti-smuggling statute, SB 1718 could be interpreted in a way that the religious freedoms of our churches are put at risk."
Steve Gregg, the associate pastor at Creekside Community Church in Gainesville, said, "Our church is currently helping to launch a ministry that gives legal aid to folks trying to navigate an often-complicated path towards immigration legal status. We are committed to following the law and helping any client served to do the same. The way this bill seems to be written could put volunteers at risk of criminal prosecution for simply bringing clients to church or to other functions. I would hope the writers of this bill would address these concerns in a way that allows the church community to serve people who are seeking to do the right thing."
All participants in the virtual conference, which can be heard on a recording posted on the EIT website, expressed the desire to work within the confines of the law. But all believe the bill, as currently written, could impede their religious freedom and limit their efforts to follow Jesus by showing compassion to the most vulnerable. Gary Shultz, Jr., senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Tallahassee, says, "As Christians, we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that includes immigrants that God brings into our state. ... If this bill were enacted as currently drafted, it would place Florida's Christians and churches in an untenable decision, having to decide between obeying biblical commands or facing criminal penalties for showing biblical compassion."
Some Christians and Christian organizations are already saying that such a law will not change the way they operate. Kristin Barnett, operations director of Neighborly, a "relationship-based poverty relief organization advocating for biblical justice" based in North Florida, said, "Before performing a miracle, Jesus didn't pause and ask, 'First, show me your papers.' No, He demonstrated the Father's love to anyone who asked."
In a recent phone call, Barnett said, "I want the option to follow my conscience and have freedom to practice my religion. And that religion, Christianity, means that I'd gladly take grocery shopping someone who needs food, or give transportation to the doctor someone who needs a ride to their appointment. We don't need the threat of a third-degree felony when providing these basic humanitarian services."
One of Neighborly's main initiatives is working with Afghan refugees in the U.S., and Barnett does not think she should be responsible for keeping up with the immigration status of the people she chooses to help. Invoking the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., Barnett said, "There are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."
Churches and Christian organizations have sent delegations to Tallahassee and written letters to the governor's office, appealing to Florida lawmakers to do away with the bill entirely or amend it to reduce the threat to Christians who assist immigrant populations.
Myal Greene, president & CEO of World Relief and one of the moderators of the recent virtual press conference, said the proposed bill "could significantly inhibit the ability of churches, Christian ministries and other institutions and individuals motivated by their religious beliefs to minister freely, which we see as a grave threat to religious freedom. It should never be a crime to drive someone to church. We're praying that Governor DeSantis and the Florida legislature will abandon this misguided bill."
Photo courtesy: ©Darwin Vegher/Unsplash
Christina Ray Stanton is a writer and author of over 50 articles and an award-winning book about 9/11 www.Christinaraystanton.com