With a congregational vote of 92 percent in favor, on Sunday morning August 27, Foothills Unitarian Universalist Church became the first church in Fort Collins to declare themselves a Sanctuary Church. “This was a deeply religious and moral statement,” senior minister Rev. Gretchen Haley said. “Although there are political and polarizing aspects to our decision, this move came out of our religious conviction that families should not be separated,” Haley explained.
In the near future, when the church has selected an individual to invite into sanctuary, the community will be informed, according to Haley. “We intend to be public about what we are doing.”
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The church has spent many months researching sanctuary and its ramifications for a church making this commitment. The members are fully aware of the risks and benefits of providing a safe haven and assisting a person facing deportation to get a fair hearing in hopes of keeping a family together. On August 27, the church members made a decision to live with those risks in order to honor a moral commitment.
In doing so, the Unitarian Universalist Church is embracing a long tradition reaching back to the right of sanctuary in medieval law in Christian and Jewish teaching. Since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, the number of sanctuary churches has doubled to 800 in the United States according to Rev. Noel Anderson, national grassroots coordinator at Church World Service, a faith based organization. “This is a concrete way for people to respond and show support and solidarity with undocumented people.”
Becoming a sanctuary church does not mean that the immigrants they shelter are protected from deportation. There is a law that prohibits harboring undocumented immigrants, but Leon Fresco, former assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice Office of Immigration Litigation says he doubts anyone would exercise it to go after a priest or pastor even though the law permits it. Critics say that churches are violating the law by sheltering undocumented immigrants.
A memo issued by ICE in 2011 says that federal policy is to refrain from immigrant enforcement in churches and other “sensitive locations” such as schools, unless absolutely necessary. While the policy is currently in place for now, the new administration may decide to change it because of their determination to seek tougher enforcement of existing immigration laws.