South Carolina Refugee Registry Legislation Called Violation of Religious Liberty

Rev. Alan Cross, a Southern Baptist minister, thinks proposed South Carolina legislation that would mandate a public registry for all refugees entering the state could be a new front in the nation’s battle over religious freedom.

“Religious liberty does not just involve the freedom to worship or to make lifestyle choices or to have a religious opinion,” Cross wrote on his blog. “Religious liberty involves the freedom to live out one’s faith.”

SB 997, as approved by a South Carolina Senate committee in late January, doesn’t mention Syrians in the letter of the law. But Cross has little doubt as to the law’s intent.

“This creates a prejudicial situation based on religion, ethnicity, and country of origin, which is clearly unconstitutional,” Cross wrote.

In addition to setting up a refugee registry, the legislation also mandates the registry be posted online for entirely unfettered public viewing. It also allows police to track refugees and bans the state from spending a dime to resettle them unless the funding is approved by the legislature.

Cross doesn’t like those provisions. “They will have a chilling effect on nonprofit organizations looking to resettle refugees in South Carolina,” he told PJM.

But there is another one he finds especially troublesome. SB 997 opens the door to “civil liability for voluntary resettlement organizations” if any of the refugees they help is found guilty of terrorism.

Cross wrote that would be like penalizing the Bible’s Good Samaritan because the man he rescued, a few days later, committed a crime.

“In imposing possible civil liability on religious organizations (even churches? I am asking), who help and serve those who have been legally admitted to the United States and who have committed no crimes at the time that assistance was given, are religious liberty rights being violated?” Cross wrote. “That is worth considering.”

Cross said as far as he knows, he was the first to look at SB 997 as something that would penalize the Good Samaritans of refugee resettlement.

“There are other South Carolina Baptists coming together on this,” he said. “I think more people are beginning to see it this way.”

A Republican congressman who took a day off from his duties in Washington to lobby for SB 997 in Columbia, S.C., spoke for those who see the safety of South Carolinians as more important than concerns of religious liberty.

If America lets the wrong Irishman into the country, that’s not a big deal, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) told a committee of South Carolina state senators, adding that he is fourth-generation Irish-American.

“You let in the wrong Syrian refugee, just one, then people can die as a result,” the AP reported Mulvaney added.

He and fellow Republican Congressman Jeff Duncan were in the South Carolina Statehouse in late January to support SB 997.

“Radical Islamic terrorists have said they will try to exploit both the migrant crisis into Europe and the refugee situation to enter into this country,” Rep. Duncan (R-S.C.) said in Columbia.

This is not a new mantra for Duncan. He has proposed legislation in the House that would give governors the right to stop refugee resettlement in their states.

He said in a statement released in early January after two refugees were arrested on charges related to terrorism, “We do not have a credible vetting process capable of bringing refugees into the United States in a way that keeps America safe.”

Just as this is not a new debate in Washington, SB 997, and the controversy surrounding it, is the rekindling of a months-long argument.

The subject of Syrian refugees being resettled in South Carolina produced a firestorm of debate in December 2015 when it was revealed that the State Department had moved some Syrians into the state despite Gov. Nikki Haley’s (R) objections.

The Greenville News reported a South Carolina man filed suit in February 2016 against Gov. Haley, the state Department of Social Services and two nonprofit agencies to stop the resettlement of Syrians in South Carolina and to protect the state from “criminals, narco-drug traffickers, terrorists, rapist (s)” and people “hostile to assimilation and the laws of South Carolina.”

State Sen. Lee Bright (R) is the lead sponsor of SB 997.

Bright told WLTX-TV he is as worried as Mulvaney and Duncan about the safety of South Carolina.

“When you see what’s going on in Europe, we don’t want that here in the streets of America. So I think in South Carolina as legislators we need to do everything in our power to protect the citizens of South Carolina,” Bright said.

Democratic state Sen. Kevin Johnson, who voted against the measure, said it was the wrong idea at the wrong time.

“We just went through the tragic and, in my opinion, an act of terrorism in Charleston, and we lost nine law-abiding citizens in a Bible study in Charleston,” Johnson said. “The rainbow in the cloud to me was that it brought the state together and we started expressing love and unity, and to me, this bill takes us a couple steps backwards.”