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Florida Pastors Worry Immigration Bill Would Criminalize Church Rides

Evangelicals who minister to and among the undocumented call the state’s proposal “an assault to religious liberty.”
Florida Pastors Worry Immigration Bill Would Criminalize Church Rides
Image: Marta Lavandier / AP
Migrants pray at a church in Hialeah, Florida.

Churches may face criminal penalties for giving undocumented immigrants rides to worship services and Bible studies if a bill before the Florida state legislature becomes law. A diverse coalition of church leaders in the Sunshine State is calling the bill a threat to religious freedom.

“It’s heartbreaking that this assault to religious liberty has been proposed,” said Myal Green, president and CEO of the evangelical humanitarian organization World Relief, “a proposal that would criminalize sharing the love of Jesus with some of the most vulnerable people in society.”

During a press conference hosted by World Relief and the Evangelical Immigration Table last Thursday, Florida church and ministry leaders detailed what they believe will be chilling effects on churches if Senate Bill 1718 is signed into law.

Not only could transportation to church events be in jeopardy, the seven local leaders said, but also churches’ ministries of transporting immigrants to hospitals, doctors’ appointments, attorneys’ offices, and schools. Churches with bus ministries could run particular risk.

With an estimated 700,000 undocumented immigrants in Florida, the legislation’s impact could be broad.

Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and an Orlando Assemblies of God pastor, said he has contacted Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s office about SB 1718, and a group of Hispanic evangelicals delivered letters of concern to the governor’s office. So far, however, they have not received a response.

“I haven’t heard from them,” Salguero told CT. “I don’t even know if they have considered the impact of this possible legislation. I think in their attempts to address immigration concerns, they overlooked the religious liberty concerns of pastors like me.”

The measure, sponsored by Tampa-area Republican Blaise Ingoglia, is aimed a curbing illegal immigration on multiple fronts. It would increase penalties against businesses that hire undocumented workers; ban local governments from funding the production of identification cards for undocumented immigrants; and track how much money is spent on illegal immigrants in emergency rooms. It would also repeal a 2014 state law allowing undocumented immigrants to practice law in Florida.

The provisions raising concerns for their religious liberty implications target human smuggling. The bill makes it a third-degree felony if a person “transports into or within this state an individual whom the person knows, or reasonably should know, has illegally entered the United States.”

Each person transported constitutes a separate offense, the bill states. Five or more offenses during a single episode would constitute a second-degree felony, which can carry a penalty in Florida of up to 15 years in prison. Third-degree felonies can yield five years in prison.

The Senate Rules Committee approved the measure 15-5 along party lines in mid-March. Dozens of people spoke against the bill prior to the vote, according media reports. Among them was Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat from the Miami area.

“What we are about to vote on today is not only an economic nightmare, it is an education nightmare,” Jones said. “It is an operational nightmare. It is a criminal-justice nightmare and, most importantly, it is a human-rights nightmare.”

Federal law already addresses transportation of undocumented immigrants, but the proposed Florida legislation takes the matter a step further. Federal law criminalizes transporting undocumented persons when the transportation is “in furtherance of such violation of law,” according to an analysis by the staff of the Florida Senate Rules Committee. The Florida bill apparently would criminalize all transporting of undocumented immigrants, regardless of why the person was being transported.

Dale Schaeffer, a north and central Florida district superintendent with the Church of the Nazarene, said fixing the bill may be relatively simple.

“Courts have generally found that the federal law makes it illegal to enter the country unlawfully and to help [undocumented immigrants] evade immigration law enforcement,” he said, “but not incidental transportation of individuals who happen to be undocumented immigrants.” Without a “clarifying phrase, [Senate] Bill 1718 could very reasonably be interpreted to mean it could be illegal to drive an elderly neighbor to church. … It could be a felony for a youth pastor to pick up a teenager in a church van.”

Other church and ministry leaders say they are seeking to determine whether the bill can be fixed or whether it should be abandoned altogether. The public policy arm for Florida’s Southern Baptists says it is studying the bill.

“Our current position is on pause while we are studying the language in SB 1718 to determine the impact, if any, on the customary operations of a church ministry and if an amendment would be necessary to maintain the status quo of church ministry in Florida,” said Bill Bunkley, president of the Florida Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Ingoglia did not respond to CT’s requests for comment. He told a Senate panel in mid-March he is not “demonizing immigrants.” Rather, “we are demonizing illegal immigrants” and pressing the federal government to enact immigration reform.

“I feel for the immigrant community. I feel for the illegal immigrant community,” Ingoglia said. “This is the point we are at now. We have to fix this system, and [federal officials] continue to refuse to do it. They will only act when they have to and when an external force pushes back. Florida is that external force right now.”

Even if SB 1718 becomes law, some Christians say they will continue to minister to immigrants and face any penalties that come. Among those is Gary Shultz Jr., pastor of First Baptist Church in Tallahassee.

“We would have to communicate the possible legal ramifications of this bill,” Shultz said. “My hope is that we would continue to do what we’re doing to minister to all of those populations.”

David Roach

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