Church sanctuary -- ancient tradition in a modern world

Should a church break the law? The question is not academic to some 61 congregations across the United States that offer sanctuary to Salvadorean and Guatemalan refugees in the country illegally.

In an era of mass-media communications and at a time when the lines between church activity and politics sometimes blur, the granting of sanctuary seems as much a political protest against US policy in Central America as it is obedience to religious convictions.

Members of the sanctuary movement say they are seeking to direct public opinion against the Reagan administration's policies in Central America. Their immediate goal is to have the immigration status of all Salvadoreans and Guatemalans changed to ''extended voluntary departure.'' This would give these people the temporary legal right to stay in the US until conditions in their own countries stabilize. The movement's members add that their long-term goal is to bring peace and economic justice to the region.

''What makes us different from a political action committee is we start with a religious desire for peace. We cherish these values as our life. We don't just want our candidate to win,'' says the Rev. James Robinson, pastor of the Unitarian-Universalist church here in Brewster, Mass. His church is one of 61 congregations to notify the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), a division of the US Justice Department, of its intent to shelter and transport illegal aliens.

Sanctuary is an ancient tradition. It has its roots among the early Hebrews who established cities of refuge to which people under the threat of law could flee. The practice contz/ed into the Christian era. It was recognized by English common law.

The closest parallel to sanctuary in the American experience was the underground railroad that clandestinely guided fugitive slaves to Northern states and Canada in the decade before the US Civil War.

''Churches should be doing all they can to enable people to come legally into this country from places of persecution,'' says Nicolas Granitsas, pastor of the First Congregational Church in Revere, Mass. For the last seven years his church has been active in assisting Southeast Asian refugees. It does not participate in the sanctuary movement.

''My reservations are whether this would be a politically effective tool, especially where it is purely a political strategy. I've seen the backlash to refugees since the Cuban boatlift in the Carter administration,'' Mr. Granitsas says. ''We would not do that. But I consider them allies, just using different tactics.''

Sanctuary springs from the long-held tradition that ''secular authority is not an infallible authority,'' says Keith Egan, chairman of the religious studies department at St. Mary's College at the University of Notre Dame.

It can be seen as a dialogue between religious groups and their government. ''But it must be expressed in genuine humility, so that it is not seen as being pulled out of a hat for a short-term poliltical gain,'' Mr. Egan says.

US law ''recognizes unwritten custom as having the force and effect of law. By this I mean a longstanding practice that is widely known and understood by the people. Sanctuary meets those conditions,'' says Thomas Cannon, a professor at the Marquette University law school in Milwaukee.

''In a search of past court decisions I could find no federal cases on sanctuary. If someone were brought to trial on it, it (would be) an open question, what is called a 'case of first il24l,0,11l,7p6impression,' '' Mr. Cannon says.

The Justice Department chooses not to prosecute church workers.

''We've had a standing policy of not going into churches which goes back long before El Salvador. It doesn't mean we ignore it. We think it is serious and the law is there for us to use if we have to in the future,'' says Duke Austin, an INS spokesman. ''Frankly, we think the sanctuary movement is getting a disproportionate amount of media attention for the numbers of illegals involved.''

According to the Chicago Religious Task Force (CRTF), a clearinghouse for the churches that have publicly announced an intent to offer sanctuary, there are approximately 150 refugees housed in churches or the homes of members of churches at any given time. This does not include those in transit.

So far, the movement has directly involved Roman Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Quaker, United Church of Christ, Mennonite, Methodist, Lutheran, and Unitarian churches. It has been endorsed by regional and national bodies of major denominations, and has won support from two Roman Catholic archbishops, one in Milwaukee, the other in seattle. The CRTF estimates ''conservatively'' that 35,000 church members are involved.

''No church has arrived at a decision in the same way. It's a calling of people together to express their biblical heritage in their own unique community ,'' says Lee Holstein, a CRTF spokeswoman.

''Our enforcement priorities are to stop the alien at the border; remove the alien from the workplace; and go after the smuggler bringing illegal aliens in for profit,'' the INS's Mr. Austin says.

The Reagan administration views Salvadoreans and Guatemalans as economic migrants. ''They are not political refugees fleeing persecution, but (they are fleeing) high unemployment and food shortages brought on by years of civil unrest,'' he says.

US asylum is granted only to those who have ''a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,'' Austin says.

''A Salvadorean once into Mexico is free of the war-torn ravages,'' says Austin. ''Why then come into the United States? He comes because of jobs, because of economic conditions. How can we keep anyone out if they come for economics and not safety?''

The US at present deports an average of 10,000 Salvadoreans a year, most of whom are here illegally and haven't filed for asylum.

The CRTF asserts that Salvadoreans are deported to their homeland under the pretense that they are economic migrants, not political refugees. Many are then kidnapped, tortured, and murdered, the group says.

Granting asylum for refugees who flee El Salvador would put the US in the embarrassing position of contradicting itself by the support it was giving to the government, the CRTF says.

''In the face of such brutality, the church has no choice but to remain true to its teachings and offer aid, and, if necessary, clandestine help, even if that means breaking the law,'' says John Bangert of the Unitarian-Universalist church in Brewster. (The penalty is a fine of $5,000 or up to two years in jail, or both, for each illegal alien hidden.)

''It is our responsibility to give these people hope. . . . We know we could go to jail. But they have no civil law they can seek recourse in,'' Mr. Bangert says.

''In its simplest terms sanctuary is a moral appeal to churches because they shy away from breaking the law,'' says Foster Phillips of the Brewster church. He is a former marine whose grandfather and father did missionary work in Central America.

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