Religious Sanctuary From the Law?


2014-08-26 – I recently heard that a friend’s church voted unanimously to become a sanctuary. So I thought I’d write about it. I have no idea what the church meant by “sanctuary.” I could ask the friend, but I’m a journalist on a deadline. Facts don’t matter when you’re on a deadline. So I asked my wife.

She said it probably has to do with undocumented aliens. That made sense. There was also a sanctuary movement in the 1980s for Central American refugees. We’ve had a lot of Central American refugees lately. Then there was the church in Ferguson that was shut down for allegedly sheltering protestors.

Lots of sanctuary action. But my post today doesn’t have to do with the facts. It has to do with the law. The question is: can a church offer sanctuary and make it stick in the secular world as a matter of law?

The Ferguson police didn’t seem to think so. And I’m not aware of an explicit law that authorizes churches (or any institution) to offer sanctuary to “fugitives of the law.” I am aware of a recent Supreme Court case, however that might give churches this right.

The case is Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, decided this summer. That case interpreted the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (42 USC 21B) that says: ““Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”

In the Hobby Lobby case the court said that a person (a corporation in that case) who held a religious belief against contraception could legally refuse to obey a federal law mandating health insurance coverage of contraception. But, as I said in an earlier post, this precedent could be used to support religious conscientious objection to many other laws.

For example, a church’s decision to offer sanctuary to undocumented aliens or refugees or protestors. Whatever!

(For the legal minded among you, I am well aware that Hobby Lobby was decided based on one federal statute trumping another and that the precedent may not technically be applicable to state law. But all states protect religious freedom in one way or another and the federal Constitution’s first amendment religion clause does apply to the states. The Hobby Lobby reasoning may not be binding on the states, but it’s reasoning would certainly apply.)

So, how far could this go? In Medieval England, there were two types of sanctuary. All churches could offer sanctuary within the church proper. Some churches had broader charters, however. They could offer sanctuary both within the church and in a zone surrounding the church.

How big could the zone be? Well, we haven’t even established sanctuary within the church yet. But Orthodox Jews in my neighborhood have a religious zone for the purposes of Sabbath observance (an eruv) that encompasses many city blocks. Could sanctuary occupy that whole space?

According to Hobby Lobby, it might just depend on what you sincerely believe.

* * *

Here, by the way, is a link to a prayer written by my friend on the subject of sanctuary: From Prayers of the People.

2 responses to “Religious Sanctuary From the Law?

  1. Pingback: Eightoh9·

  2. Pingback: What Kind of Conscientious Objectors Are These? | Eightoh9·

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