The following blog post is submitted by Dorothy Rogers, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Religion at Montclair State University.
In recent weeks local municipalities have proposed statements of support for immigrants and minorities in an effort to counteract new xenophobic policies at the federal level. While hundreds of cities across the nation have made “sanctuary” declarations, both Maplewood and Montclair have passed “welcoming community” resolutions instead. Reports are that Bloomfield plans to do the same.
Is this a distinction without a difference? Not really. When we look at the tradition of “sanctuary” historically, it’s clear that there certainly is a difference. In the fullest sense of the term, “sanctuary” involves more than simply expressing noble ideals. It signals political resistance.
I’ve written about the history of sanctuary elsewhere but will reiterate here that there is a long religious tradition supporting the practice, which dates back to ancient Hebrew criminal codes. Sanctuary was given new life in the 1980s by activists opposed to U.S. foreign policy in Latin America who helped undocumented asylum seekers cross the border with Mexico then travel north to Canada. The network was discovered, and Sanctuary leaders were charged with violating federal immigration law.
Their claims to religious freedom, along with human rights challenges to U.S. immigration policies, were immediately struck down in court, most notably in Merkt/Elder (794 F.2d 950; 1986).
This history is instructive. In Montclair, where I am a resident, the township attorney vetted the town’s initial “sanctuary” proposal to ensure it would stand legal muster. This kind of review makes sense from a practical standpoint. Although many of us might wish to protect the most vulnerable in our communities, the fact of the matter is that “sanctuary” has no legal standing. In ideal terms, sanctuary is a pre-emptive refusal to become an arm of the government in advancing unjust laws and policies. But as noted in last week’s meeting, the State of New Jersey prohibits town officials from defying state and federal law.
Montclair’s approach also makes sense from a moral standpoint. A declaration of sanctuary in the fullest sense is a pledge to protect the most vulnerable members of our society by refusing to submit to an overly zealous government. But if we are unable to enforce it, sanctuary is little more than an empty promise to those we aim to protect. A “welcoming community” resolution, on the other hand, may seem like a less forceful statement of support, but it is a more realistic one. As a Welcoming Community, we pledge to do what Montclair has aimed to do for so much of its history: support all of its residents, foster a sense of community, and facilitate cross-cultural understanding – and in this case, to do so with the needs, hopes, and special concerns of immigrants and religious/cultural minorities in mind.
Let me close by saying I am glad to live in a community like Montclair that is committed to diversity and inclusion. I also deeply appreciate the humanitarian impulse behind our “welcoming community” resolution. Passing this resolution was a good move and a prudent one: It may be just as important to be realistic about what we are actually able to offer the vulnerable in our community as it is to issue our impassioned statements of support.
Dorothy Rogers is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Religion at Montclair State University. She has research and teaching interests in women’s/feminist thought, the philosophy of religion, and religion in ethics/politics/law in America. Her views in this entry do not necessarily represent the views of her colleagues in her department or at the university.