According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 67 percent of South Carolinians regularly attend church services, sixth-highest in the country. Matters of faith are central to the way this state operates and the way citizens of this state think about their lives together. That is why it’s baffling how easily S.997 passed through the.S.C. Senate.
SC Senate passes state registry of refugees
S.997 requires that all refugees legally abiding in South Carolina register with the Department of Social Services, which in turn must give that registry to the State Law Enforcement Division. And it holds liable any organization, religious or not, that aids a refugee who later commits a violent crime.
There are many problems with this bill. First, refugees are not criminals; they are people who are fleeing violent situations all over the world, yet this bill requires that their name, address, phone number, employment status and more be placed in a database, making them susceptible to higher levels of scrutiny and harassment. Normally such registration and surveillance is reserved for those who have broken the law, but here it is being applied to individuals who have done no wrong.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The State
McCorkle: Religious liberty under attack — by its defenders
Granted, many see this as a necessity due to the risk of terrorism. This bill, however, will do nothing to prevent terrorism; it will only create another class of legal residents of the United States who suffer harassment due to their ethnicity and background. It will not be limited to Syrians or Iraqis, and even if it were, it would still be a bad bill. The Afghani interpreter who helped the U.S. military, the Burmese Christian escaping religious oppression and the Congolese refugee fleeing decades of war will all be subject to higher monitoring, scrutiny and harassment. That is, the same kinds of treatment they were trying to escape.
Perhaps equally troubling is the provision holding churches and other non-profits liable if they help someone who goes on to commit a crime. This infringes upon the most basic First Amendment right of the free practice of religion.
The Bible is full of instruction to care for the stranger in our midst: “You shall not oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9); “Then (the Lord) will draw near to you for judgment, … against those who thrust aside the alien and do not fear me” (Malachi 3:5); “For I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35); “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:13); and “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).
This is just a sampling of the wide biblical tradition of concern for the foreigners, aliens and strangers in our midst. Therefore, in a state with 67 percent regular church attendance, one should expect a great outcry against a bill that attempts to curtail that institution’s right to practice its religion, which clearly includes care for the marginalized of the world, such as refugees.
It’s worth noting that there is no other class of citizen or non-citizen that churches are held civilly liable for if they help them. Churches are called by Jesus to be neighborly, to help those who are nearby, but this bill intends to dissuade churches from their religious calling to care for refugees.
I urge the House to think seriously about this bill — about not only the political implications but the religious implications — and to vote against it. If it passes, however, I urge Gov. Nikki Haley to veto it on grounds of its violation of religious liberty, and a violation of the most basic rights of refugees legally abiding in our state.
Sen. Kevin Bryant has been quoted as saying, “We can make South Carolina out of the 50 states the most unwelcome state for refugees.” May the churches of South Carolina prove otherwise — by welcoming the stranger, caring for the refugee and being good neighbors to those at our doors.
Rev. Hart is missions coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina; contact him at email@example.com.