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Changing clothes would have been safer than going to church for Christopher Peterson. His distinctive shirt had appeared in the newspaper, in a surveillance camera photo of an August 16 bank robbery, worn by a man who looked a lot like him. When he wore it four days later to Crossroads Grace Community Church in Manteca, California, another attendee recognized him, called the police, and told them the man in the photo was sitting in the back pew. Officers came in during the service, tapped Peterson on the shoulder, asked him to step outside, and arrested him as the rest of the congregation worshiped obliviously.

Conventional wisdom holds that church sanctuaries are, well, sanctuaries where lawbreakers can take refuge. We learned about it from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Zorro movies, and Whoopi Goldberg's Sister Act. But as a legal principle, it's a bit dated: King James I abolished it four centuries ago.

The right of sanctuary had a good run. The Pentateuch repeatedly stakes out refuges at the altar and at special cities (Ex. 21:12-14, Num. 35). In the first few centuries after Constantine, church and state officials codified sanctuary in detail: How much of the body needs to be within the sanctuary? Do church graveyards count? What about the bishop's residence? Can you claim sanctuary if your crime is blasphemy?

Judeo-Christian laws weren't unique. Greek temples worked the same way, as did the Hawaiians' sacred pu'uhonua sites. But the reason for such sanctuaries was the same. "As a product of a time when justice was rough and crude," law professor Wayne Logan summarized in a 2003 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review article, "sanctuary served the vital purpose of staving off immediate blood revenge." If the church ...

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hide thisOctober October

In the Magazine

October 2006

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