S997, the anti-refugee bill that would have created a state registry for refugees and would have held sponsors civilly liable for certain future crimes that refugees would have committed, officially died this week in the South Carolina House of Representatives. This bill was full of religious liberty challenges, as I detailed back in early February, because the primary groups that serve as sponsors are faith-based resettlement agencies and churches. This meant that a church or someone acting on their Biblical convictions that they should help those in need could have potentially been sued and held civilly liable if a refugee that they were helping committed certain crimes that caused harm or damage to someone else. This approach was basically unheard of. When churches help people, they do so without knowledge of what that person might do later, either good or bad. This move by the SC Senate in the drafting of this bill caused a great deal of alarm among pastors and leaders throughout South Carolina and across the country because they also saw how it could potentially open the door for future liability in other areas of church ministry as well. Dr. Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission called the bill “deeply misguided” and expressed concern by saying, “’the government does not have a mandate, though, to intimidate churches and religious citizens from freely exercising their religion’ by ministering to people regardless of their country of origin.”
So, how did the bill that passed 39-6 in the Senate with wide bipartisan support fail in the House? The intentions of the bill’s sponsors were clear, as Sen. Kevin Bryant (R) from Anderson said,”We can make South Carolina out of the 50 states the most unwelcome state for refugees.” This bill was not really about public safety, per se. It was about making sure that refugees were not welcome in South Carolina. After a rousing debate on the Senate floor where fears about terrorist attacks and Bible verses were quoted back and forth, the Senate passed the bill with overwhelming support and sent it on to the House. It seemed destined to pass there as well.
One thing that must be considered here is that far right Republicans in South Carolina are opposed to Governor Nikki Haley and have been for some time. They see her as a moderate Republican and they want to weaken her any way they can. Some said that this bill was designed to do just that by forcing her to veto it, which would send a message that she was not concerned about keeping South Carolina safe from terrorism, thus equating the mere presence of refugees with potential terrorist attacks. Republican leaders in South Carolina, encouraged by anti-immigrant and anti-refugee groups, made this bill a focus of their legislative session and there was great pressure to pass some form of it. This was also the season of Trump, as he won 44 of 46 counties in the South Carolina GOP presidential primary and won a plurality of Evangelicals over a host of other more traditional candidates. Anti-refugee/immigrant groups felt emboldened.
While the bill was being debated in the Senate, a movement began to oppose this bill from faith-based groups and churches across the state. One of my roles is as the Southeast Regional Coordinator for the Bibles, Badges, and Business for Immigration Reform initiative working in conjunction with the Evangelical Immigration Table, where I work on immigration ministry and advocacy issues across the Southeast, most notably in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. We work with churches and leaders and promote a Biblical perspective on ministering to and advocating for immigrants and refugees. In that capacity, I became aware of S997 and began to work with leaders and refugee advocates to oppose the bill. What happened over the next three months was amazing.
First of all, after the bill passed the Senate 39-6 in late March, there was quite a bit of surprise among religious leaders. Many in South Carolina did not think that a Republican Senate would pass a bill that would put the basic ministry of churches in such danger. GOP legislators thought that fear and anti-refugee/immigrant attitudes would trump the desire of South Carolina Christians to minster to people in need. But, when they did pass this in the Senate, pastors, church leaders, and denominational leaders saw the danger, spoke up, and began to act. Small meetings were held across the state in restaurants and conference rooms as leaders and volunteers began discussing the ramifications of this bill. People wanted to know what they could do to stop this. Emails were exchanged and phone calls were made. Word spread like wildfire. OpEds were written asking “How can a state punish Christian mission?” and claiming that religious liberty itself was under attack. The journalist Sarah Posner, writing for the Washington Post, heard about the bill’s passage and explained how S997 would hold religious groups liable for the future actions of refugees. South Carolinians were shocked that such a harsh bill would be passed for the explicit purpose of making South Carolina “out of the 50 states the most unwelcome state for refugees.”
As meetings and conversations were held, something remarkable began to happen. A large coalition of conservative Southern Baptist pastors and church and denominational leaders and other conservative Evangelicals began to join with pastors/leaders from more progressive Christian denominations in opposition to this bill. Sign-on letters opposing the bill were circulated amongst groups of pastors and petitions and letters emerged from hundreds. Baptist associations of churches opposed this bill as they saw the danger to their own ministries to the least and those in need. Bishops from the Catholic Church, United Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Episcopalians signed a letter opposing the bill. At last count, over 300 pastors and leaders expressed opposition to the bill. Groups and volunteers and leaders related to World Relief Spartanburg (Jason Lee) and Lutheran Services of the Carolinas (Bethany Vause), the two refugee resettlement agencies in South Carolina, began to advocate against the bill. Other groups like the ACLU and South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice and Church World Service (CWS) jumped in and began working with the churches and Christians to oppose S997. It is rare that you see Southern Baptists and the ACLU agreeing on anything publicly, but it happened here. The bill was that bad. In addition, people from across the state began calling and emailing their state representatives as the bill moved to the House Judiciary Committee’s Constitutional Laws Subcommittee for consideration. Democracy in action!
On April 28, over 30 people descended upon the South Carolina State House to oppose S997 before the House subcommittee’s public hearing. Pastors, refugees, lawyers, ex-law enforcement, college students, mothers with their babies in tow, and volunteers who worked with refugees all came to express opposition to this bill (the #FearIsNotOurPolicy movement of college students against S997 is highlighted here). For two and a half hours, the testimony of 22 individuals was heard. I was able to lead off with testimony against the bill and was grilled by the committee for over 20 minutes. It was a surreal experience standing before this committee trying to explain how this bill did nothing to keep South Carolina safer and it only placed burdens on those trying to help people in need. Not one person was there to speak for the bill. Recognizing how bad this bill was, the subcommittee put forward an amendment that removed “strict liability” from the bill and raised the bar on future liability to a level that the sponsor had to have known or should have known that the refugee was going to commit a terrorist attack. We were grateful for this amendment put forward by Judiciary Chair Greg Delleney (R) and recognized that he heard our previous opposition and was trying to fix a bad bill the best he could. However, we still opposed it because we knew that with all of the previous publicity, if this bill passed, refugee ministry in South Carolina would become that much harder as many would shy away from it out of fear. We did not want that to happen. So, we spoke for the vulnerable and the refugees fleeing violence and persecution and hoped that our voices would be heard. Almost every person there spoke from a Christian perspective and talked about the ministry of their church to the oppressed. Under intense pressure, debate was delayed until the next week.
On May 5, we gathered 43 people in the conference room in the Blatt Building to speak again against S997. No one was there to speak for it. The coalition was growing and becoming even more diverse. We were not allowed to speak that day, but with the help from Lutheran Services, World Relief, and many groups from across the state, we made our presence known. More phone calls and emails were sent. This time, however, the bill passed through the sub-committee on a 2-2 vote with the Chair, Rep. Delleney voting for it and carrying it. They believed that their amendment weakened the bill to the point that churches would be protected. We were disappointed, but vowed to continue to make our case against the bill known. We were concerned that if any version of this bill passed, because of the original intent, it would be used by anti-refugee groups to harass and intimidate churches from working with refugees.
The House adjourned for a week and then came back into session the next week. We put together packets with news articles, letters of opposition, fact sheets, and a synopsis of the public testimony previously given to give to all of the members of the full Judiciary Committee. An untold number of people throughout the state made phone calls and sent more emails. More and more people became involved in speaking against this bill. Email lists were growing into the hundreds as action alerts were sent out. Opposition to this bill was not a Left-Right thing. People from all walks of life and ideologies were opposing S997 and a legitimate movement was growing. When the full Judiciary Committee was scheduled to meet again on May 18, we had dozens of people there again, even though they knew that they would not be able to speak. They showed up wearing yellow stickers saying “No to S997” and filled the room. However, a majority of the members of the Judiciary Committee were not there. All of the Democrats and some of the Republicans did not show up and there was no quorum available for the Judiciary Committee to meet! There were many other bills held up that were not going to make it through the committee unless it was able to meet. I cannot speak to all of the reasons that there was not a quorum, but the next day, the full Judiciary Committee arrived (with dozens of opponents to S997 there again) and immediately declared “Debate Adjourned” on the anti-refugee bill. With no more scheduled days left for the Judiciary Committee to meet, S997 effectively died on May 19.
There was a possibility that the bill could come back out of committee over the past two weeks and we heard word that anti-refugee groups were trying to bring that about just last week, but their efforts failed. The most stringent, anti-refugee bill in the nation failed primarily because Christians from across the state and across ideologies came together to speak for those who had no voice and could not speak for themselves (Proverbs 31:8-9). They spoke for their religious freedom to minister to those in need without fear of reprisal and it carried enormous weight. Religious Freedom gained a victory and now people in South Carolina can continue to care for refugees who come to that state.
In addition, we saw what can happen when people of faith come together to care for the vulnerable and persecuted in a state and in a region of the country where the rhetoric surrounding opposition to immigrants and refugees has gained a great deal of traction. In one of the first real instances where meaningful legislation could be advanced that would limit refugee resettlement in 2016, the people of South Carolina rose up and said that this was wrong. I hope that the voices on behalf of those in need grow louder.
SC Representative Donna C. Hicks (R) from Spartanburg said this about why she opposed the bill:
The bill was a badly written bill. It did not properly address the resettlement concern about terrorists entering our state. Instead, the bill created risk and punishment for the church. As a Christian, a seminary graduate and someone who has ministered in many countries including my own, I could not and would not support a bill that persecutes the church for fulfilling her call. The concerns should be addressed at the vetting level. The church must be free to minister as the Lord leads.
Yes! She is a politician that is full of courage. We need more like her! My prayer is that people of faith will continue to speak up to keep the door open to minister to and advocate for those who are in need all around us, including refugees fleeing violence, persecution, and genocide around the world. That seems like something Jesus would have been a part of.
For further information, see the press release from the National Immigration Forum on the defeat of S997.