Several religious leaders in Florida, including Florida United Methodist Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker, said in a conference call on March 11 that a proposed immigration reform bill in the Florida Legislature should be rejected. The religious leaders said the legislation would divide communities, separate families and prevent churches from ministering to those in need.
The proposed legislation, known at this point only as PCB JDC 11-01, was approved by the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House of Representatives on March 8. It is similar to a measure passed in Arizona last year, mandating the use of an employee verification program and requiring law enforcement personnel to check the immigration status of anyone who has been arrested, even for minor offenses. The religious leaders called on state legislators to reject it.
|Bishop Timothy Whitaker|
Whitaker said putting local law enforcement in charge of enforcing federal immigration laws would have troubling consequences.
"Such an approach is not healthy for protecting human beings against crime and building up the moral life of the community. The proposed legislation is lacking in both wisdom and compassion," he said.
Other faith leaders who joined with Whitaker on the conference call included Bishop Edward R. Benoway of the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in Tampa; Bishop John F. White of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Miami Gardens; the Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches in Tampa; and the Rev. Ray Johnson, coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida in Lakeland.
The faith leaders also released a letter to Florida legislators asking them to show compassion, common sense and moral courage, and to reject divisive, counterproductive legislation. The letter reminds political leaders that the faith community stands with immigrants and is "alarmed by hostile rhetoric used to denigrate immigrants and certain legislative proposals that would both cause suffering to immigrant communities and restrict the practice of our religious beliefs."
Bishop White recalled his church's long history of working for justice.
"The AME Church history and theology is that of liberation and reconciling ministry for all of God's people. We have a long history of trailblazing in matters of insuring justice for all persons, and our global ministries find the matter of immigration to be unjust," he said.
Benoway and Meyer noted that the legislation could potentially attach criminal penalties to churches' ministries to immigrants.
"Christianity universally considers the fair and just treatment of immigrants as a desirable virtue ... That's why you find churches involved with health care clinics and schools and clothing drives and advocacy for migrant workers. That's why the churches have long been the agencies that resettle refugees," Meyer said. "The church is made of all people from all countries. What some Florida legislators are proposing would be to lock us up for practicing our faith. The idea is simply astounding."
The joint conference call was organized by the Florida Council of Churches with assistance from Faith in Public Life, an interfaith political advocacy organization based in Washington. A press release about the joint action is available online at http://faithinpubliclife.org/content/press/2011/03/florida_bishops_faith_leaders.html.
News media contact: Cary McMullen, 800-282-8011, firstname.lastname@example.org, Lakeland
*McMullen is managing editor of the e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.