Sanctuary activists awaiting trial watch key defense wither

Twelve leading sanctuary activists scheduled to stand trial this September have been watching a federal judge chip away at key parts of their defense. The activists, part of a church-based, nationwide movement sheltering undocumented Central Americans in the United States, contend that freedom of religious ministry allows them to take part in this movement.

Last week, however, a federal judge in Pheonix, Ariz., ruled that arguments or statements of religious belief would not be allowed to be presented to the jury this fall. The activists, including Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy, now face trial on federal charges of conspiracy to smuggle and harbor illegal aliens.

In bits and pieces this summer, Judge Earl Carroll has decided many of the key pretrial motions in the case, pruning back the legal scope of the controversial case, including freedom of religious ministry vs. US immigration policy.

The 12 defendants, based in the Southwest, have been disappointed but not surprised. They are still confident their religious convictions will reach the jury and affect the verdict.

For the larger sanctuary movement, the judge's rulings will make it more difficult to make the case a trial of US immigration policy itself.

``It will make it more difficult for us to present the reality, the truth, of what we were doing,'' says Philip Willis-Conger, a defendant and sanctuary organizer in Tucson, Ariz. ``But it will be very difficult to keep from the jury why we were doing what we were doing.''

After waiting nearly three years to strike a major blow, the US government moved in January to knock out what it called ``an alien smuggling ring,'' indicting 16 leading sanctuary activists, including the 12 defendents in the forthcoming trial.

The move brought the sanctuary movement instant national attention. It pitted Christian clergy ostensibly in good conscience against the immigration policies of the Reagan administration -- a religious ministry against the state.

A handful of smaller sanctuary cases have been brought to trial, but none have the scope of this case. Stacy Merkt and Jack Elder, who work at a south Texas shelter for Central Americans, have each been tried twice on charges that involve transporting aliens. Miss Merkt's first conviction was recently overturned, and her second conviction is under appeal. Mr. Elder was acquitted the first time and is completing his second trial sentence of five months in a halfway house. Mr. Willis-Conger also faced pr evious charges brought last year, but they were dropped.

Since the indictments in January, the number of church congregations and Quaker meetings that have declared themselves public sanctuary has grown from around 180 to 237, according to the Chicago Religious Task Force, which tracks the sanctuary movement nationwide.

The national governing bodies of many mainline Protestant denominations have come out in support of the sanctuary movement. And in the past year, Michael Myers, Washington representative for Church World Service (an arm of the National Council of Churches), has seen ``probably a tenfold increase'' in the number of congregations calling with inquiries about refugee issues. Typically, they are uncomfortable with sanctuary but want to help change refugee policy.

The movement has raised the chances of passing a pro-sanctuary bill in Congress from nil to possible -- although not yet probable, according to the bill's supporters.

The Moakley-DeConcini bill is a proposal to allow Salvadoreans safe haven in the United States until the fighting in El Salvador subsides. Supporters include the leadership of most mainline denominations and the US Catholic Conference.

The tactics of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in this case have also become a political issue. Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California is convening hearings in December on whether it was appropriate for the INS to send undercover informants with tape recorders into church meetings, without warrants, to collect evidence.

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