The Sanctuary Movement Case, 1985

After 19 years of practicing corporate litigation with prominent law firms in New York City and Minneapolis, I was a tabula rasa in what turned out to be important topics for me. I had no knowledge of, or interest in, international human rights law in general or refugee and asylum law in particular. Nor did I have any knowledge of, or interest in, Latin America in general or El Salvador in particular. At the same time I was struggling with the question of how to integrate my newly re-acquired Christian faith with my professional life.

In 1985 all of this started to change.

My senior partner at Faegre & Benson asked me to provide legal counsel to the firm’s client, the American Lutheran Church. The problem: how should the ALC respond to the news that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service had sent undercover agents into worship services and Bible study meetings at Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in Arizona that were involved in the Sanctuary Movement?

As I soon discovered, that Movement was a loose association of Christian congregations that declared themselves sanctuaries or safe spaces for Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing their civil wars in the 1980s. The news about the “spies in the churches” was revealed by the U.S. Government in its prosecution of some of the Movement’s leaders for harboring and transporting illegal aliens, some of whom were later convicted of these charges.[1]

In the meantime, the ALC and my own church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), decided to join together to sue the U.S. Government over the “spies in the churches.” Eventually the U.S. District Court in Phoenix agreed with the churches that the First Amendment’s “freedom of religion” clause[2] provided protection against certain government investigations.

The court said that the churches “in the free exercise of their constitutionally protected religious activities, are protected against governmental intrusion in the absence of a good faith purpose for the subject investigation. The government is constitutionally precluded from unbridled and inappropriate covert activity which has as its purpose or objective the abridgment of the first amendment freedoms of those involved. Additionally, the participants involved in such investigations must adhere scrupulously to the scope and extent of the invitation to participate that may have been extended or offered to them.”[3]

I should add that the courtroom work in this case was done by two lawyers at the Phoenix firm of Lewis and Roca–Peter Baird[4] and Janet Napolitano.[5]

This case marked a turning point in my legal career as will be evident in my subsequent posts Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer  and My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989.

By Duane W. Krohnke, a retired lawyer, adjunct law professor, and volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights.

[1] One of the founders of the Sanctuary Movement was Rev. John Fife of Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church. He was one of those convicted in 1986 in the criminal case. Six years later he was elected the national leader (Moderator) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)..(Wikipedia, John Fife, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Fife.)

[2] “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion].” (U.S. Const., Amend. I.)

[3] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) v. U.S., 752 F. Supp. 1505, 1516 (D. Ariz. 1990), on remand from, 870 F.2d 518 (9th Cir. 1989).

[4] Peter Baird, http://www.lrlaw.com/files/Uploads/Documents/Baird%20Bio.pdf; Phoenix veteran attorney Peter Baird dies, Phoenix Bus. J.(Aug. 31, 2009), http://www.bizjournals.com/phoenix/stories/2009/08/31/daily19.html.

[5] Napolitano now, of course, is the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. (Wikipedia, Janet Napolitano, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janet_Napolitano.)

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