Can criminals hide in churches?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 16 2006 6:15 PM

Can Criminals Hide in Church?

On the tradition of religious sanctuary.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer's free daily podcast on iTunes.

A Mexican immigrant-rights activist took sanctuary in a Chicago church on Wednesday rather than risk deportation and separation from her 7-year-old son. A government spokesman scoffed at the notion of church protection: "We will apprehend her at a time and place of our choosing," he said. Can a criminal find refuge inside a church?

Not according to the law. Religious institutions in America don't have special permission to harbor criminals or protect them from the government. That hasn't stopped pastors from trying. In the 1980s, hundreds of churches joined together in the "sanctuary movement" to save Central American political refugees from deportation. They managed to offer some de factoprotection, since the immigration authorities wanted to avoid the spectacle of church raids. But the courts ruled that church officials and volunteers weren't immune to criminal prosecution, and some members of the movement were convicted of transporting illegal aliens. (American churches made similar efforts on behalf of runaway slaves in the 19th century and Vietnam War protesters in the 1970s.)

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Advertisement

Today churches may have a little bit more authority to harbor illegal immigrants than they used to. In 2005, Congress passed a law that gives religious groups a limited right to recruit illegal aliens as church volunteers or missionaries. (Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah introduced the legislation at the behest of the Mormon Church.) The illegal immigrants would still be subject to arrest, but church officials couldn't be prosecuted for taking them on.

The tradition of religious sanctuary goes back to ancient times. The Old Testament mentions safe haven at the altar for criminals who commit accidental murder and even suggests the establishment of six "cities of refuge" for killers. By around the fourth century, the right to sanctuary had become formalized among the early Christians. At first the sanctuary rule applied if the criminal had one part of his body in a church building or grasped the rings attached to the church doors. Within a few centuries, the sanctuary zone included the churchyard, graveyard, cloisters, and a 35-pace radius around the bishop's residence.

In eighth-century England, criminals could escape the death penalty or other violent punishment by retreating to churches and paying a fine. If a crook didn't have enough money, he might be given the opportunity to flee the area or become a servant of the church.

Churches continued to offer sanctuary to criminals for hundreds of years. By the early 1200s, English criminals could hide out for 40 days at a church and then accept "abjuration of the realm," or permanent exile. They could also stay indefinitely at special "chartered sanctuaries" established by the king.

The principle of sanctuary declined in the years leading up to the Reformation. Chartered sanctuaries were abolished in 1540, and the church could no longer protect anyone guilty of treason, murder, rape, highway robbery, burglary, arson, or sacrilege. English criminals had no official recourse to the churches by the end of the 1600s. (The Catholic Church kept a rule on sanctuary in the Code of Canon Law until 1983.)

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Wayne Logan of the William & Mary School of Law.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 16 2014 11:46 PM The Scariest Campfire Story More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.