A dangerous stand-off between Church and State

A dangerous stand-off between Church and State

Long before he assumed the highest office in the United States, President Donald Trump’s contradictory statements on everything from the war in Iraq to abortion were subjected to quizzically raised brows and prime-time debates. None of which has done the billionaire businessman any harm as he harangues and denounces anyone brazen enough to try and point this out to him now.

A more robust challenge to his art of doublespeak may, however, be rising across the land, one with its seeds in the actions of one desperate women in the state of Colorado.


On February 15, illegal immigrant (some prefer undocumented migrant) Jeanatte Vizguerra deliberately missed her appointment with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers and instead headed to the First Unitarian Society church of Denver where she announced she was seeking sanctuary from the deportation she knew must be coming.

For the record, Jeanatte has been present in the United States since 1997, her husband is an American citizen and three of her four children were born there, though she has been the subject of a deportation order since 2011 (unenforced to allow sufficient time for her to apply – unsuccessfully – for residency).

Quite aside from any debate over the correct/merciful/just course of action for Jeanatte today is the question over the response by agents of the state to her simultaneously novel and ancient course of action.

At the time of writing, said officers were holding off from entering a place of worship to enforce a deportation order, this being in keeping with an instruction from the Obama administration that listed churches and schools among other sites where such actions were to be avoided unless absolutely necessary.

Indeed, in a separate case last week, members of ICE undertaking an operation against suspected illegal migrants in Virginia opted to wait outside the Rising Hope Mission Methodist Church in Alexandria before swooping on their suspects as they exited the building. (That action has prompted a major petition drive by the ecumenical campaign group Faithful America.)

If and for how long this stand-off policy endures are the questions of the moment.


As Jeanatte’s situation became the focus of US networks last week, news began to filter out that other churches across the United States – at least 800, it has been estimated – have proclaimed themselves ready and prepared to provide similar sanctuary space to those under threat of deportation (this in addition to a growing number of citizens apparently ready to offer rooms in homes).

And herein lies the challenge to Mr Trump’s credibility.

The man who built his campaign on promises to oust millions of illegal immigrants is also the president who, eager to please his evangelical (and other religious) base, has made strong and positive soundings about protecting rights of conscience for those of faith.

The president may argue that what he had in mind on this latter point is the right of florists to refuse service for same-sex weddings, but he can hardly ignore the Christian calling to help the vulnerable and dispossessed.

Mr Trump might choose to play to his tough man image on all, and the legal opinion is that the law is on his side if he does so.

But what then? Once a church door is kicked in, the damage will not be undone by cosmetic repair.