Moral issue: Some religious leaders active, others silent on state immigration

By M. Scott Carter
The Journal Record
Posted: 09:58 PM Wednesday, June 15, 2011

OKLAHOMA CITY – For several years now Oklahomans have argued about immigration using three basic concepts: laws, money and policy.

But the fourth component of the immigration debate, the moral issue, has been largely ignored by the general public, the Legislature, and even a majority of Oklahoma’s religious community.

Although some faith leaders have lobbied the Oklahoma Legislature for a compassionate approach on immigration, neither the state’s largest faith group – Southern Baptists – nor the majority of Oklahoma’s 2,000-plus churches have publicly addressed the issue.

“Ten years ago, in the old days, there was more involvement,” said Father Michael Chapman, a Catholic priest who has been active in the immigrant community. “But today the churches, the media and other groups are very neutral. I don’t know why.”

That silence, it seems, depends on the denomination.

Despite repeated attempts, neither officials at the Oklahoma Baptist General Convention nor those with the Southern Hills Baptist Church – considered one of the state’s mega-churches – could be reached for comment.

But other groups, including Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, have publicly called on the country’s evangelical leaders to speak up for their Hispanic brethren.

“I think evangelicals have said ‘Enough is enough is enough,’” Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land told the magazine Christianity Today.

That may be happening in other states, but in Oklahoma the leader of Yukon’s Trinity Baptist Church took the opposite approach. This spring, the Rev. Dan Fisher grilled Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele – himself a minister – asking Steele why lawmakers hadn’t passed several anti-immigration bills.

“What do we do to be able to stop this shell game at the Legislature and get this stuff through?” Fisher said to a group of religious conservatives who call themselves the High Noon Club. “We elected people to go in there and change these things, and then somehow the leadership structure and the rules and everything that’s set up ends up derailing all the very things we want the most.”

Fisher’s response was far different from those at an April rally sponsored by the Oklahoma branch of the League of United Latin American Citizens. There, Bruce Prescott, senior pastor of the Oklahoma Mainstream Baptist Church, said the lawmakers who pushed anti-immigration laws were trying to bully, persecute and intimate courageous people.

“People have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness wherever they were born,” Prescott said. “If the law made it impossible for me to provide for my family, I would decide it was the law that was unjust.”

Still other groups, including the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, called on state lawmakers to develop a “new and gracious tone” in the immigration debate.

“We seek to uphold the human dignity of each person,” said the OCC Executive Director the Rev. William Tabbernee.

In a statement issued in April, Tabbernee and 18 other religious leaders called on state lawmakers to demonstrate compassion and courage by rejecting several so-called Arizona-plus proposals before the Legislature.

“These bills make criminals out of citizens who employ and other otherwise assist them,” the OCC’s statement said. “As drafted, these bills do not, in our view, address legitimate public safety concerns.”

The OCC’s document was co-signed by several religious group leaders, including Oklahoma’s Catholic Archbishop Paul Coakley, Catholic Bishop Edward Slattery, Greg Coulter of the Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery and officials from the state’s Methodist, Church of Christ and Episcopal churches. Neither the OBGC nor officials from the Southern Hills Baptist Church signed the document.

Leaders from other denominations, including the pastor of Oklahoma City’s Mayflower United Church of Christ, said they endorsed a way for the state’s undocumented aliens to become U.S. citizens.

“One could argue that Jesus was as close to a refugee that we’ll get,” the Rev. Robin Meyers told a group of journalists this spring. “I don’t think Oklahoma courts would put the slammer on a church that was following a higher power in protecting (undocumented aliens).”

Still, the same issue that has driven many church-goers to the polls has divided them in the pulpit. And though state lawmakers beat back an attempt to pass new anti-immigration legislation this year, those measures are expected to return for the 2012 legislative session.

“The difficulty with the legislation that was proposed is that its fundamental purpose was to make life miserable for those who live here,” said Father Don Wolfe, a Catholic priest from Shawnee. “These laws would affect American citizens, those children born in this country, and make life really, really miserable.”

For Wolfe, who has been active in the immigrant community, the arguments surrounding the state’s immigration policy are proof that many of those seeking to oust the state’s undocumented don’t understand the issue.

“There are all kinds of arguments: moral, economic and legal,” Wolfe said. “And we need to use whatever it takes to get people to reconsider these types of laws. That’s the important thing. The more I hear about the concerns people have raised, the more it seems to me they are not very well informed.”

And those arguments, Wolfe said, cannot be ignored by any member of the faith community.

“I think we have to talk and get people engaged with their government,” he said. “When I talked to members of the Legislature they thanked me for my interest but that’s it – so far.”

M. Scott Carter,
Capitol Bureau Reporter
The Journal Record
(405) 278-2838 – Downtown
(405) 524-7777 – Capitol bureau

One Response to “Moral issue: Some religious leaders active, others silent on state immigration”

  1. Sundra Flansburg July 27, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    The Oklahoma Sponsoring Committee, the host of the event that brought together journalists and immigrants to share stories, is an organization of over 20 congregations and a few faith-based nonprofits who are working together to make Oklahoma City a better place for all of its residents. Representing many denominations, one of our areas of work is ending local abuses of immigrants, whether legal or without documents. Thanks for this powerful story!

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