Conservative Christians have become accustomed to a certain sort of religious-liberty threat, usually involving a same-sex couple, a Christian baker or florist, and the “Civil Rights Division” of one or another government agency. But the Left does not have a monopoly on twisting prayerful arms.
On November 19, following a directive from governor Greg Abbott, Texas Health and Human Services commissioner Chris Traylor sent a letter to volunteer organizations across the Lone Star State, ordering that, “If you have any active plans to resettle Syrian refugees in Texas, please discontinue those plans immediately.” Many of those volunteer organizations are faith-based, raising an obvious question: In a conflict between the Abbott administration’s security concerns and the right of religious believers to welcome the stranger, which prevails?
In Texas, that question has not come to a head. Although two families of Syrian refugees were resettled in the state this week, one in Houston and one in Dallas, they have been ushered through the process by DFW International Community Alliance and the International Rescue Committee, respectively, neither of which is faith-based.
However, in Indiana, where last week Republican governor Mike Pence tried to dissuade the archbishop of Indianapolis from resettling a family of Syrian refugees in the city, the diocese went ahead with its plans, noting that it would be funding the resettlement entirely through private donations given to Catholic Charities. Asked whether he would direct state agencies to deny the family government services such as food stamps, Pence made clear that he has no intention of picking a fight with the church by doing so.
But does Texas? On December 2, state attorney general Ken Paxton filed suit against the International Rescue Committee under the Refugee Act of 1980, which stipulates that, “in providing refugee assistance . . . local voluntary agency activities should be conducted in close cooperation and advance consultation with State and local governments.” According to Paxton, the Committee did not adhere to its obligation under the law, since it pushed forward settling Syrian refugees without the cooperation of state officials. Should a faith-based organization resettle Syrian refugees, the same argument could presumably be applied.
Of course, there would be an added wrinkle: the First Amendment. While faith-based groups would have to show that the restriction on resettling refugees substantially burdened their right to free exercise, the state would have to show a compelling interest for imposing such a burden, and also demonstrate that said burden was the least restrictive means by which to achieve its interest. Given the fact that the federal government has wide latitude to conduct refugee resettlement as it sees fit, it’s hard to imagine the state being able to make a persuasive case for abridging the rules of mercy and hospitality obviously embedded in Christian doctrine and practice.
Yet concerns about the security threat posed by Syrian refugees are not foolish. In the wake of attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, that terrorists might exploit immigration systems to make their way to foreign shores and commit acts of terrorism is no speculative concern; it’s a stark reality. And it’s difficult to believe that Pence or Abbott is trying to quash religious practice; the former is an adult convert to Evangelicalism, the latter to Catholicism, and each has spoken widely about the importance of his faith.
#share#What, then, is going on?
Conservative Christians are sometimes inclined to believe that the dictates of their faith and of their politics perfectly align — or that they can, if the right leader is at the helm. It is, of course, not so. The Kingdom of Heaven and the various kingdoms of Earth do not always fit squarely together; religious and political commitments frequently duel, and are forced to negotiate messy compromises.
In the case of Syrian refugee resettlement, loyalty to the practice of Christian mercy may well require accepting more risk than is comfortable to a citizen not bound by the same commitments. But that is something non-Christians may have to accept in the interest of upholding a constitutional order in which religious exercise is protected. At the same time, welcoming the stranger cannot entail an open door; Christians seeking to fulfill their religious obligations may have to do so in a way that makes concessions to political realities.
#related#These interests will be impossible to balance to everyone’s satisfaction. At some point, perhaps, faith-based organizations could be resettling enough refugees to provoke genuine concern. But Texas, which has taken in more Syrian refugees than any other state in the Union except California, has still settled just 250 over the last five years — a rate of four per month. Even if that rate were doubled or tripled, would it be enough to justify curbing millions of Americans’ First Amendment rights?
These are the situations we like to forget exist: Politics encountering problems that have no solutions. The best we can do is exercise humility and thoughtfulness, and manage. In Texas, managing should involve a little less strong-arming from government officials, a little less garment-rending from religious leaders, and a little more good faith on the part of everyday citizens — who, at the end of the day, can either welcome Syrian refugees and make it possible for them to become neighbors, or reject them out-of-hand and ensure that they don’t.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.