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A South Carolina bill would hold faith groups liable for refugees they settle — including their crimes

Syrian refugees wait near the border train station of Idomeni, northern Greece, to be allowed by the Macedonian police to cross the border from Greece to Macedonia on Aug. 18. (Giannis Papanikos/AP)
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The South Carolina Senate on Thursday passed a controversial bill targeting refugees in the state, prompting concern that it may portend a wave of anti-refugee legislation around the country, particularly in the tense climate following the terrorist attacks in Brussels.

The bill, if passed by the South Carolina House and signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley, would require refugees’ sponsors to register them in a database maintained by the state’s Department of Social Services. It would also impose strict liability on a refugee’s sponsor if the refugee, at some point in the future, commits a terrorist or criminal act.

“I fear this may be the start of similar nationwide legislation,” said Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief, an evangelical humanitarian nonprofit group that helps resettle refugees who have been vetted and approved under a federal program run by the State Department.

[He escaped the Holocaust. Now he’s watching Europe turn away refugees like him.]

Although World Relief and many evangelicals in the state have opposed the legislation, many of its Senate supporters belong to evangelical churches, highlighting a growing split within evangelicalism over immigration and refugee issues.

Alan Cross, a Southern Baptist minister opposed to the bill, noted that six of the bill’s eight co-sponsors are Southern Baptists. The bill’s evangelical opponents have charged it violates their religious freedom.

Yang called the bill “wrongheaded,” “grotesque” and “anti-faith” and said World Relief worries that if passed, the bill would “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.”

William Dieckmann, director of missions for the Columbia Metro Baptist Association, which represents about 100 Southern Baptist churches, said his group had expressed concerns about the bill to its Senate sponsors. He said he hoped that the bill would undergo further changes in the House and that it could ultimately strike a balance between safety and the ability of religious groups to carry out their mandate.

Cross, the southeast regional coordinator for the advocacy group Evangelical Immigration Table, said that he was visiting churches whose members are working with refugees in Georgia as the South Carolina Senate was debating the bill. He said refugee advocates there were concerned that the passage of the bill in South Carolina could provoke other states to follow its lead.

Jason Lee, director of World Relief’s South Carolina office in Spartanburg, said more than 80 percent of refugees the group had resettled in the state have been Christians, some of them fleeing religious persecution. None of the refugees World Relief has resettled in the state have come from Syria, and only a handful of refugees from other countries have been Muslim.

[Would Jesus take in Syrian refugees?]

Lee stressed that all refugees have been vetted by the State Department, through a rigorous process that can take up to three years. “We welcome and serve them once they are here,” he said, by setting up “Good Neighbor Teams” through local churches to help the refugees acclimate to their new environment, learn English, find jobs and health care, and more.

Although earlier versions of the Senate bill would have made the registry publicly available, a late amendment would make the registry available only to law enforcement. Still, some refugee advocates are troubled by the provision. “There is absolutely no reason why refugees should be registered and tracked at all, even if it’s privately done,” Yang said.

A second provision would hold any refugee sponsor strictly liable if the refugee at some point in the future “acted in a reckless, willful, or grossly negligent manner, committed an act of terrorism” or a violent crime “that resulted in physical harm or injury to a person or damage to or theft of real or personal property.” They would be required under the bill to pay civil damages to anyone injured by such an act, apparently committed at any time in the future, by a refugee. An earlier version of the bill would have held the sponsors liable only for negligence. The adoption of the strict liability standard, which would impose liability without a finding of fault, has alarmed refugee advocates, who also say it is unclear whether churches who co-sponsor a refugee would be held liable under the bill.

Aside from World Relief, the only other refugee resettlement agency in the state is Lutheran Services Carolinas. Bedrija Jazic, its director of refugee and immigrant services, would say only that the group was “very excited that there were some amendments to the bill, and we will continue to look into how that is actually going to affect the agency.”

Robin Woodfin, a member of Anderson Mill Road Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist church in Roebuck, S.C., works with a World Relief Good Neighbor Team through her church. She described the liability provisions of the bill as “a scare tactic to prevent good neighbors and good Samaritans from helping others.”

“It’s an awesome job; I’m privileged to do it,” Woodfin said. “The fact that someone wants to prevent me from doing it is beyond my comprehension completely.”

The South Carolina House is expected to take up the Senate bill after it returns from Easter recess April 12.

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