Among the important cases this month on the Supreme Court’s docket for oral arguments is a constitutional challenge to Arizona’s tough immigration law. The court’s ruling on the case, expected in June, not only will impact Arizona’s law but also immigration legislation passed in Utah, Georgia, Alabama and other states — and it has significant religious freedom implications, as well. 

A brief filed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the Arizona case warns that state laws like Arizona’s S.B. 1070 pose “a serious threat to religious liberty,” according to Catholic News Service. Christians, the brief noted, have a religious and moral duty to aid those in need. By criminalizing the act of aiding illegal immigrants such laws “threaten this Catholic mission to provide food, shelter and other care to all.”  

The religious liberty objection is arguably even stronger in the case of Alabama’s law, which is popular with state residents and is described by supporters as the nation’s toughest immigration legislation. 

In September, while allowing much of the law to go into effect, a federal judge blocked the provision that most concerned church leaders, and which would have made it illegal to “conceal, transport, harbor or encourage an illegal immigrant to stay in Alabama.” 

Mobile, Ala., Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi had said the provision “makes it illegal for a Catholic priest to baptize, hear the confession of, celebrate the anointing of the sick with, or preach the word of God to, an undocumented immigrant. Nor can we encourage them to attend Mass or give them a ride to Mass.” 

Faced with backlash from religious and civil rights leaders, and a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice, Alabama’s lawmakers this month proposed modifications (though the governor assured outraged supporters the “essence” of the law would remain unchanged). 

The new bill would remove a requirement — already put on hold by the courts — that public schools check the residency status of students. It also eliminates a provision that equates renting to an illegal immigrant with harboring one, and it requires police to ask about immigration status only after an arrest or traffic violation, not a simple legal stop (though it extends police authority to check the status of all occupants of a vehicle, not just the driver). 

The impact for Alabama churches remains unclear. The proposed law grants an explicit (but exceedingly narrow) exemption to churches to employ illegal immigrants as volunteer ministers, and does remove the language which ran afoul of the federal judge and which banned “encouraging or inducing” illegal immigrants. 

The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Arizona case may bring further clarity to the patchwork of immigration laws that have sprung up at the state level. But the confusion also highlights the inevitability and necessity of a single national policy. 

We join the plea to Congress and the Obama administration recently made by the head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles: “Enact comprehensive immigration reform. Our nation is in great need for a federal solution to the challenge of illegal immigration, one that balances the rule of law with humanitarian principles.” 

And, we add, one that does not penalize believers for fulfilling the religious mandate to serve the pastoral and social needs of all members of society, regardless of their citizenship status.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.