By James Neal | Staff Writer - Jun 19, 2018
ENID, Okla. — Oklahoma church leaders have issued a statement calling for an end to the Trump administration's separation of immigrant children from families on the southern border, joining a throng of national faith leaders who have condemned the practice on religious and moral grounds.
The Oklahoma Conference of Churches (OCC) Council of Communion Leaders issued the statement Monday, urging the Trump administration to stop its policy of separating children from families who have illegally crossed the border.
OCC represents and advocates for 16 denominations in the state, with more than 1,200 local congregations representing between 600,000 and 700,000 Oklahoma Christians, according to OCC figures from October.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the zero-tolerance policy in April, requiring families to be processed through criminal proceedings, which entail the forcible separation of children from parents. Families crossing the border previously were predominantly processed through civil proceedings, which do not require separation of children from their parents.
Between the policy implementation and the end of May almost 2,000 children were separated from their parents and detained, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The OCC statement declared that process "unnecessarily cruel and detrimental to the well-being of parents and children."
"Whatever changes may be made to immigration and refugee laws, family separation is not acceptable morally or theologically," the statement read.
The statement's wording closely followed a June 7 statement of national faith leaders, including 20 signatories from Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish and Islamic traditions.
The OCC statement was signed by 21 communion leaders, from 16 Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and Diocese of Tulsa.
The Rev. Shannon Fleck, OCC executive director, said the Council of Communion Leaders had been working for more than a week on a statement in response to the issue of family separation.
She said that process was accelerated last Thursday when Sessions quoted Scripture from Romans 13 to justify the zero-tolerance policy.
Fleck said that was a misuse of Paul's writing in Romans, which in part reads "everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established."
"We already didn't agree with the practice, because it is vastly immoral and unethical to separate a child from their family," Fleck said. "But it made it even more awful that religion and our holy text was going to be used to justify this policy. There was no way we were not going to speak against that."
Fleck said the family separation policy causes unnecessary harm to children, and violates Christian family principles.
"The structure of families is a holy unit," Fleck said. "It is something that is a gift from God, to live in this relationship with one another, and any law or any policy that would target and strip a child away from loving parents is not just and needs to be reexamined.
"As faith communities we cannot support any policy that would take and separate a family like that," Fleck said. "It's going to cause permanent trauma and harm for the children."
Fleck acknowledged the need to uphold laws, but she said merely crossing the border "should not be criminalized to the point of taking children away from parents who clearly love them and are caring for them."
"These are families who are seeking safety and support so that their children can live a safe life," Fleck said. "They are literally fleeing situations that are unimaginable to us for the safety of their children."
Fleck said the true purpose for the family separation policy appears to be political.
"I think this is being used politically and that is unacceptable," Fleck said. "It is unacceptable to use children's lives as a political tool."
Trump has repeatedly and falsely claimed that Democrats are the cause of the zero-tolerance policy, which was implemented by his administration.
He reiterated that claim Tuesday on Twitter, tweeting "Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13."
Despite those attempts to deflect blame for the policy, many national faith leaders, including some normally supportive of the president, have spoken out against family separation.
In a June 12 interview with Christian Broadcasting Network, evangelical leader Franklin Graham, a frequent advocate for Trump, described the family separation policy as "disgraceful."
"It's terrible to see families ripped apart and I don't support that one bit," Graham said.
The Rev. Tony Suarez, executive vice president of National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) and one of the president's informal faith advisers, also spoke out Friday on Twitter, tweeting "God have mercy on those that seem so nonchalant to the plight of children being separated from their parents."
Southern Baptists, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, took up the issue of immigration during their annual meeting in Dallas last week.
While the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) did not specifically address Trump's family separation policy, a resolution on immigration approved last week did affirm "God commands His people to treat immigrants with the same respect and dignity as those native born" and "the value and dignity of immigrants, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, culture, national origin, or legal status."
The resolution also asserted "any form of nativism, mistreatment, or exploitation is inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ."
Last Wednesday also saw a statement released from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, archbishop of approximately 6.2 million Roman Catholics in the Galveston-Houston area in Texas, and Bishop Joe Vásquez, chairman of USCCB's Committee on Migration, issued the joint statement calling for an end to family separation.
"Our government has the discretion in our laws to ensure that young children are not separated from their parents and exposed to irreparable harm and trauma," the statement read. "Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together."
The Rev. Katharine Henderson, president of the ecumenical Auburn Seminary, issued a statement Friday calling the president's family separation policy "barbaric, unconscionable and sinful."
"We are creating trauma for families that will never be fully healed," Henderson said. "The unnecessary policy, which criminalizes desperate parents seeking to survive, is ethically indefensible, and we as the citizens of this nation are complicit and culpable as long as it continues."
She also took exception to Sessions' use of the Bible to defend the policy, calling his use of Romans 13 "blasphemous."
The national bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church also criticized the misuse of Scripture to justify family separation as a tactic of the "political cult of Mr. Donald Trump."
"Students of cults understand that they abuse and misuse the truth of religious documents to control people and to bend their will," the bishops wrote in their statement. "The founders of this nation used the same tactics to enslave our African forebears by lifting from the writings of the Apostle Paul passages to condone slavery and to break their spirit."
Sessions' own denomination, the United Methodist Church (UMC), announced Monday more than 600 UMC clergy and laity are filing church law charges against him, alleging the zero-tolerance and family separation policies violate UMC canonical law for its members.
The church law charges accuse Sessions of "child abuse in reference to separating young children from their parents and holding them in mass incarceration facilities; immorality; racial discrimination and 'dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrines' of The United Methodist Church." Possible penalties for the charges include expulsion from the church.
The Most Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, also spoke out against the family separation policy during an interview with MSNBC on Monday.
Curry told MSNBC the policy is a violation of Christ's command to "Love your neighbor as yourself," and said the selective use of Scripture to justify the policy is "immoral and it's wrong and it's a misuse of religion."
"Romans 13 was used to justify slavery, Romans 13 was used to justify Nazism in Germany ... but it was a misuse, even of Saint Paul," Curry said during the MSNBC interview.
He said quoting Romans 13 over the Gospel teachings of Jesus "is just flat-out wrong, it's un-Biblical, it's un-Christian and it's un-American."
Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of the Roman Catholic publication America Magazine, also spoke to MSNBC Monday and described the family separation policy as "sinful." The previous day, on his Facebook page, Martin described family separation as an "evil" that "does not proceed from God or from any genuinely moral impulse."
Martin told MSNBC it's hard to understand how some Christians read the Bible and still support the zero-tolerance and family separation policy.
"I think the problem with a lot of these Christians who say they're reading the Bible is, I don't what Bible they're reading," Martin said, "because the Bible I read always has Jesus reaching out to those who are on the margins, including and most especially migrants and refugees."