With chants of "Stay out of our churches," about two dozen Protestant and Catholic religious leaders from throughout Los Angeles County on Monday joined a protest against what they called the desecration of an Orange County Catholic church last week by immigration agents who entered in pursuit of two illegal aliens.
"We will not accept behavior from INS that smacks of a police state," said Auxiliary Roman Catholic Bishop Carl Fisher, who joined the protest organized by the United Neighborhoods Organization of East Los Angeles and its sister community action organizations in South-Central Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley.
However, the protesters steered clear of the more controversial investigation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service of two churches in Los Angeles that offer sanctuary to refugees and immigrants, an issue that arose shortly before the incident at the church in the city of Orange.
Fisher, one of the highest ranking church officials to speak out against the Sept. 27 incident, noted that the community groups have called on U.S. Sens. Pete Wilson and Alan Cranston to push for new INS guidelines to prevent future incidents. A Cranston spokesman said the senator sent a telegram Friday to Harold Ezell, INS Western regional commissioner, expressing his concern.
Ezell has said that although the incident was "regrettable," his agents did not act improperly when, during the course of a street sweep of day laborers in Orange, they followed the aliens into the church and asked them to step outside where they were arrested.
But the demonstrators who gathered Monday outside of St. Matthias Catholic Church in Huntington Park called the agents' actions clearly improper.
While there is no law preventing federal agents from entering a church in the line of duty, there is a long-standing tradition that government agencies not interfere with churches, said Father Rody Gorman, pastor at St. Matthias and co-chairman of UNO.
Several leaders expressed concern that the incident set a precedent for government agents to enter churches at will, especially since the immigration agents in Orange County were not in pursuit of dangerous criminals, said the Rev. Don Croil, pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Baldwin Park.
Fisher condemned the INS agents' entering the church as unwarranted, stating that Pope John Paul II and Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony have said "there are no such things as illegal aliens in the Catholic Church. . . . We are all brothers and sisters."
Still, Fisher said "the church does not officially support" sanctuary--the sheltering, feeding and housing of illegal refugees and immigrants by some churches, including two Los Angeles Catholic churches now under investigation by the INS. "Nor does it encourage the deliberate violation of the law."
Gorman said the demonstrators chose to focus on the Orange County incident--to the exclusion of the "more complicated" sanctuary investigation involving three Los Angeles priests--because "a lot of people don't agree with sanctuary. But everybody agrees the INS should not go into churches."