South Carolina became a pioneer in providing sanctuary to refugees fleeing religious persecution with the March 1, 1669, Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina protecting the rights of “Jews, heathens, and other dissenters from the purity of Christian religion.” This included a Charleston community of Sephardic Jews, who finally found sanctuary after generations of roaming the globe following their expulsion from Spain.
The document, co-authored by John Locke, was revolutionary. It helped to form the philosophical bedrock that laid the foundation for the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the American tradition of serving as a refuge for the persecuted.
In the coming days, however, South Carolina could go in a different direction, this time pioneering dangerous and misguided legislation that would create a hostile environment for refugees, pressuring them — and the faith-based groups that help them — to “self-deport” from the state.
This legislation, which recently passed the state Senate and will soon be considered by the House, would force social service agencies and houses of worship to register any refugees they help resettle and hold them liable in civil court for any crimes those refugees might commit.
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As the shocking rise in anti-Muslim bigotry collides with increasing concern about terrorism at home and abroad, legislation attacking refugees has spread rapidly across the country. But South Carolina’s bill could set a unique and dangerous precedent. If South Carolina passes this disastrous legislation, it risks not only endangering those seeking refuge on our shores and tarnishing our country’s proud tradition of assisting those forced to flee their homes, but also jeopardizing the promise of religious freedom that is the core of American civic life.
This proposal rests on a fundamental misconception about refugees and immigrants, one too often promoted by those who peddle in bigotry and fear. From our experiences, from the stories of our families and communities, and from countless people we’ve worked with over the years, we know the significant contributions that refugees make to our country. Refugees have become our religious leaders and successful entrepreneurs. They are artists, scientists, scholars, police officers, doctors and soldiers; they are our neighbors. But most important, they are children of God, entitled to equal opportunity, dignity and respect.
Moreover, South Carolina’s bill is a solution in search of a problem. Crime rates are actually much lower among the foreign-born than among those born in the United States. To force religious organizations to bear responsibility for any crimes refugees might commit is at once to demonize those refugees and to pretend that they do not hold the same responsibility for their own actions as anyone else. This is to deny their God-given potential and their humanity.
This bill is a failure of both our religious ideals and our promise of religious freedom. Houses of worship and religious communities have always held a privileged place in American life, groundwork that was also laid in the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina. That privilege has allowed religious communities to be at the forefront of movements for social justice throughout our history, and it enables us to step up and serve refugees today. Conservatives have used this religious-freedom claim to carve out exemptions for religious organizations to nondiscrimination laws, health-care mandates and much more. That so many of them seem ready to abandon religious-freedom concerns when it comes to refugees, subjecting religious organizations to undue scrutiny and impeding their ability to serve, suggests that these politicians value religious freedom only when it serves their political agenda.
Our nation is struggling to address the deteriorating situation in the Middle East and the largest global refugee crisis since World War II. We cannot allow South Carolina’s dangerous proposal to become an example for states across the country and our international neighbors. We hope that the people of South Carolina will help defeat this legislation and continue the hard work of finding real solutions.
The ultimate irony is that faith organizations have played such a vital role in responding to the refugee crisis precisely because of the failure of our federal, state and local governments to act. If South Carolina’s disastrous, discriminatory idea becomes the norm, who will be left to reach those people in need? All of us who cherish religious freedom should be deeply concerned by this proposal that is so obviously aimed at discouraging religious organizations from fulfilling our sacred duty to serve.
Mark Hetfield is the president and chief executive of HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit dedicated to refugee resettlement. Jack Moline is a rabbi and the president of Interfaith Alliance, an organization committed to protecting faith and freedom.