In January this year, four humanitarian workers with No Mas Muertes – No More Deaths – were convicted in the US Federal Court in Tucson AZ for the crime of leaving water and food for immigrants crossing into the USA.
New standards of law had been put into place to increase the penalties specifically for aid workers. Convicted of trespass, of being in a federal land area without a permit, and of ‘abandoning personal property’ anyone else would have received a fine. Now the law specifically aimed at these people of faith, may sentence the volunteers to six months in prison plus a hefty fine.
Another volunteer, Scott Warren, is currently on trial in the same jurisdiction for “harboring” undocumented immigrants for also providing two men with water and food as they took refuge in an abandoned building. He faces much stiffer charges for both harboring immigrants and conspiring to harbor them.
All of the volunteers are people of faith, Warren’s defense rests on the recent Religious Freedom Restoration Act established by former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions. However, the American Civil Liberties Union has raised serious questions about the unequal application of the law.
Warren asserts that his faith (he is Unitarian Universalist) requires that we aid the alien in our midst. He states that he is motivated by many faith directives to assure that all people in need, including undocumented people, are protected against death and harm from hunger and thirst. That is the underlying motivation for the entire organization, and Warren was acting upon it.
In a chilling declaration, the US Department of Justice has declared that this is not a religious belief to be upheld.
The government opposed the motion, saying the prosecution does not substantially burden Warren's beliefs. DOJ lawyers said Warren “is not required by his beliefs to aid in the evasion of law enforcement. Nor were the people associated with these charges ‘in distress.’ ” (www.npr.org October 18, 2018.)
With this administration creating laws and standards within those laws that target only specific beliefs – ban on contraceptive coverage for Hobby Lobby and the rights not to bake cakes for same sex weddings – the First Amendment protections themselves are now under assault as much as the humanitarian workers.
The assault on religious freedom should alarm each and every one of us. In past cases such as the anti-abortion movement, the standards of law were universal. When barriers were erected around women’s clinic doors, the guidelines were consistent with all types of protests such as labor strikes, as were standards for federal injunctions that established permissible and non-permissible actions. There was one standard applied to all.
These recent cases in Arizona federal court are setting legal standards today that are directed against certain people by employing different sets of norms and consequences from those for anyone else.
We are also being told our faith values do not exist. They are the wrong values for this administration.
The immediate concern is the well being of the workers facing prison and further charges. If you would like to help, please go to nomoredeaths.org
You can also find links there to details about their work in general and to Scott Warren’s trial in specific and may make donations to the organization’s legal fund.
These are uneasy days for both humanitarian action and for equality before the law. We encourage you to take your voices to our elected officials on behalf of absolute equality in all matters pertaining to law and to conscience. We have a First Amendment for a reason. The law cannot undermine it for some groups while upholding it for others. That is the pathway to tyranny.