Sanctuary: Imposition of Religious Belief?

What is sanctuary?

Sanctuary involves congregations declaring themselves official “sanctuaries”. That means they are committed to providing support to refugees. Various denominations participate. Movement members act in defiance of federal laws they oppose and they uphold laws they think their government violates.

Where did sanctuary come from?

The historical roots of the movement derive from the “right of sanctuary” in medieval law as well as Jewish and Christian social teachings. The participants cite roots going back to the Underground Railroad and conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War.

The Sanctuary movement was a religious organization. It has morphed into a political campaign. It began in the early 1980’s. The original idea of this iteration was to provide safe haven for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict. The movement developed in response to federal immigration policies that made obtaining asylum difficult for Central Americans.

What is the rule of law?

The rule of law is the authority and influence of law in society. It is a constraint on individual and institutional behavior. The rule of law is the principle whereby all members of a society, including those in government, are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes. The phrase refers to a political situation, not to a specific legal rule.

Where did it come from?

The principle, if not the phrase itself, was recognized by ancient thinkers such as Aristotle who wrote something to the effect that: It is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens. The Scottish theologian Samuel Rutherford employed it in arguing against the divine right of kings. John Locke wrote that freedom in society means being subject only to laws made by a legislature that apply to everyone…

The rule of law implies that every person is subject to the law, including people who are lawmakers, law enforcement officials, and judges. It stands in contrast to anarchy where there is no law and to tyranny where the rulers are held above the law. Because of neglect or ignorance of the law the rule of law is more apt to decay if a government has insufficient corrective mechanisms for restoring it.

Why should you care?

The New Hampshire legislature has before it senate bill 317 and house bill 232. Both bills aim to prohibit sanctuary jurisdictions at the state level. So the question is before us: Should we support or oppose sanctuary. Let’s try to reason through the issue.

Sanctuary by definition is a moral position. It is not a legal position. It requires action, in this case in violation of law, to accomplish goals viewed by a religious minority as necessary. We have an amendment to our constitution which says in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” So, if people have a religious belief that requires them, in the practice of their faith to act, it is their right. However, their right to practice their religion does not give them the right to impose their religion on the rest of us. That is exactly what sanctuary does.

If these religious groups wish to change the law to bring it into concert with their religious beliefs they have a right to launch a political campaign to do so. Unfortunately, were they to be successful in making church cannons into law they would be violating the first amendment of the constitution. A more correct approach would be to move to change immigration law. That would have to be done at the federal level based on legal precedent. That is not what sanctuary has done or is doing.

Both bills before the New Hampshire legislature seek to ensure our government through officials of the government respects the rule of law. The bills re quire specific performance of the duties of government office by the holders of positions of governmental authority. Jurisdictions with knowledge and forethought which refuse to follow the law are held to account.


Government officials should never be allowed to disregard the rule of law. Civil society without the rule of law ceases to exist. We have a process for changing our laws. Not all laws are good laws. Not all laws are just laws. However, at a minimum, we must agree that we will live within the framework of our laws or our social structure breaks down. Both senate bill 317 and house bill 232 deserve consideration and support.