South Carolina Wants Faith Groups To Be Liable If Refugees They Support Commit A Crime


A Syrian woman holds a baby, sitting in a tent at the transit center for refugees near northern Macedonian village of Tabanovce.

Religious leaders are speaking out against a new South Carolina bill that would make faith-based groups who “sponsor” refugee resettlement legally liable if an asylum-seeker commits a crime — a move opponents say is just a thinly veiled attempt to discourage assisting Syrian refugees.

The bill, which passed by the South Carolina state senate this week in a 39-6 vote, is split into two sections. The first would require the “sponsor” of a refugee — or the group helping them resettle in the state — to register them in database operated by the South Carolina Department of Social Services and available only to law enforcement. But it’s the second provision that has Palmetto State faith leaders particularly up in arms: the proposed law would make sponsors — most of whom are religious institutions — legally liable for any and all crimes committed by the refugee.

“A refugee's sponsor shall be strictly liable to a person if…the refugee acted in a reckless, wilful, or grossly negligent manner, committed an act of terrorism as defined by Section 16-23-710(18), or committed one of the violent crimes defined in Section 16-1-60, that resulted in physical harm or injury to a person or damage to or theft of real or personal property,” the bill reads.

The bill’s supporters say its goal is to prevent terrorist attacks perpetrated by refugees, even though only three of 784,000 refugees resettled in America since September 11, 2001 have been arrested for planning terrorist activities (only one was planning an attack in the U.S., but his plans were reportedly “barely credible”).

“With the danger today of a terrorist infiltrating the refugee program, we have no other option than to enroll this information,” Sen. Kevin Bryant, co-sponsor of the bill, told The State. “We’ve got to choose our own citizens over those who are not citizens of our country.”

“Hopefully, this legislation will prevent an attack here in South Carolina,” he added.

The bill comes months after South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley became one of the last Republican governors to call for a ban on Syrian refugees entering the state, saying those fleeing unspeakable violence in Syria could potentially launch terrorist attacks similar to those that rocked Paris, France late last year. However, state governors do not have the Constitutional authority to reject refugees, who are placed and vetted by the federal government in the most rigorous screening process for any category of immigrant entering the United States. Thus, Haley and her supporters were inevitably pitted against groups who assist with refugee resettlement in South Carolina — namely, faith-based volunteer outfits World Relief and Lutheran Services Carolinas.

Representatives of these organizations say the proposed law is an attempt to discourage the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the state — and, by extension, refugees in general. Lutheran Services Carolinas is the only group to have resettled Syrian refugees in the region thus far, placing the first pair in the Midlands of South Carolina in mid-December.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passage of this bill, which will only promote fear and discrimination of all refugees,” Lutheran Services Carolinas president Ted Goins said in an email to ThinkProgress. “South Carolina has a long history of welcoming those seeking refuge from war and violence and it is our hope that when the bill reaches the House that it will be met with a renewed commitment to welcome and compassion.”

Goins also noted that the bill would hinder his work with refugees.

“Any action of this sort can only promote division, discrimination, and fear and that, of course, would interfere with the work of any organization,” he said. “Scripture tells us that we are all created in the image of God, that we should love one another, that we should be just and merciful, and that we should welcome the stranger. The Good Samaritan didn’t ask about race, religion or country of origin. The bill will make welcoming the stranger a much more difficult process.”

A World Relief representative also decried the bill, calling it “anti-faith,” “wrongheaded,” and “grotesque.”

“[The bill will] infringe on our ability to carry out our mission, which is a matter of carrying out our faith and practicing our religion, to help people who are vulnerable,” World Relief spokesperson Jenny Yang told the Washington Post.

All of the bill’s sponsors are Republicans, and all claim to be various flavors of evangelical or conservative Christians — i.e., Baptist, Southern Baptist, evangelical Christian, or Free Presbyterian. Yet the bill stands in stark contrast to the position of numerous influential theological conservatives: in December, a group of more than 100 evangelical Christian leaders signed a declaration calling for churches to embrace Syrian refugees, arguing that, “as Christians, we must care sacrificially for the refugee, the foreigner, and the stranger.” Signers included Frank Page, CEO of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, Paul Ericksen, Interim Executive Director of The Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, and Ed Stetzer, Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Two pastors from South Carolina were also listed, as well as the Urban Resource Coordinator for the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary — where State Senator Lee Bright, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, is said to serve on the Board of Visitors.

“For many, including some who profess to be Christian, fear seems to be trumping core Christian beliefs. The Bible mentions fear dozens of times — and it’s mainly to exhort us to fear not,” Goins said. “We believe in reasonable laws to keep us secure, but we also believe that well-vetted refugees who have been through unspeakable hardships should not be denied safe haven by a state that could reasonably provide it through experienced agencies such as Lutheran Services Carolinas.”

The debate is the latest in an increasingly contentious national standoff between Republican lawmakers who oppose the resettlement of Syrian refugees and faith-based groups that are both deeply supportive of their plight and often tasked with the work of helping them build a new life in the United States. In November, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to “refuse to cooperate” with religious organizations that settle refugees in the Lone Star State, but most of the faith groups vowed to defy him and settle them anyway. When the New York City-based International Rescue Committee placed six Syrian refugees in the state weeks later, the Texas government filed suit, arguing that "the federal government and resettlement group have not fulfilled their contractual obligations to consult with and provide information to state officials.”