Francisco Aguirre has now become the latest poster boy for “sanctuary,” the bizarre concept that a criminal should be able to avoid arrest by taking shelter in a church. Aguirre is a native of El Salvador, who entered the United States undocumented in 1995. He apparently earned his living in part through illegal drug trafficking of cocaine and heroin, a crime for which he was convicted in 1999, then deported. He then re-entered the country illegally at some point, and is alleged to have recently committed another offense, driving under the influence of alcohol.
After his DUI arrest, he fled to the Augustana Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon, where he has vowed to remain until he can figure a way to wiggle out of his problem. Augustana is one of about 300 congregations nationwide that have offered to protect criminals being sought by the law. From Arizona to Philadelphia, churches are thumbing their noses at the law and daring the police to do something about it.
This concept of “sanctuary” predates Christianity by a good bit. Criminals who made their way into temples in pagan Greece could evade prosecution, just as Aguirre is now trying to do. In the Book of Numbers, God orders Moses that “ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you; that the slayer may flee thither.”
The European Middle Ages were characterized by a titanic struggle between the Vatican, which claimed the right to rule the world in God’s name, and civil governments, which sought to enforce human-made rules in a practical manner. The practice of sanctuary formed an important part of the uneasy modus vivendi between the two rival systems of government. Just as a person who commits certain crimes in Texas and then flees to Mexico can only be extradited back to Texas after extensive bureaucratic procedures are followed, so a person who committed a crime in medieval Paris and made her way to the cathedral could not be handed over to the civil authorities–the central plot element of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
In the United States, at least until recently, there has never been any tradition of rival legal status for civil government and churches. We have always been a society of human-made and human-changeable laws. If some expert comes along and says “That’s not what God wants,” it’s not supposed to matter.
In the 1980s, though, a number of churches decided they were above the law and began systematically offering safe haven to illegal immigrants, defying the federal government to do something about it. Unfortunately for them, they ran into an administration that had some backbone. Despite the overwhelming support from organized religion that helped get him elected, Ronald Reagan took a dim view of sanctimonious law-breaking. In 1986, his Justice Department indicted sixteen U.S. and Mexican religious on seventy-one counts of conspiracy and encouraging and aiding “illegal aliens to enter the United States by shielding, harboring and transporting them.”
The defendants tried everything, from international law to the “free exercise” clause to citing the Bible, with one nun self-servingly proclaiming, “If I am guilty of anything, I am guilty of the gospel.” She was duly convicted, along with the others, and the sanctuary movement went dormant for a generation. Now it’s back.
There is no question that our immigration legal system is a farce. The vast majority of illegal immigrants—even some who are heroin dealers—deserve our sympathy and respect. In Aguirre’s case, important citizens (including the mayor of Portland) have rallied to his side because he is said to be a civic activist with a reputation for helping others in the community. There is no question that the real villain of the piece is Congress, for allowing the immigration disaster to roll on, decade after decade, while the members just point at the other party and blame it for intransigence.
None of that justifies sanctuary. None of it justifies allowing churches, willy-nilly, to nullify laws they don’t like. If liberal churches can shield Francisco Aguirre, then why can’t conservative churches shield Eric Rudolph? Could a synagogue protect Jonathan Pollard? Could a Boston mosque give sanctuary to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? Could the Church of Scientology open a sanctuary hotel and make rooms available to the highest bidders? The only answer compatible with the rule of law in all five cases is no—the suspect should be given a fair trial, all his legal rights, and a reasonable shot at clemency, but should not go scot-free just because some God expert likes him.
Unfortunately, there are two big differences between today and 1986. The first problem is that Barack Obama is no Ronald Reagan. There is not the remotest possibility that this administration will ruffle any religious feathers by sending in immigration agents to drag illegal aliens, even those who are convicted heroin dealers, out of churches. If that prediction turns out to be wrong, you can go ahead and heap abuse on me—but it won’t happen.
The second problem is that Reagan’s case was brought several years before the enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. RFRA brings back the Middle Ages, elevating religion to virtually the same level as government. In some ways it’s even worse, because in the Middle Ages only one church enjoyed rights, but under RFRA anyone who claims to be acting on any religious beliefs can force the government to bend over backwards to accommodate them. It shouldn’t be difficult for a defense attorney to make a plausible argument that the 1986 case would have turned out differently had RFRA been in force.
The message to criminals is clear. Make a little investment now in a friendly neighborhood church, and if you feel the law closing in, remember how to find it. If you can’t remember, Google Maps can help.