The American Friends Service Committee, citing its Quaker tradition of aiding immigrants and Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, went back to court Thursday in its effort to gain a religious exemption from sanctions against employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers.
An attorney for the 73-year-old national agency told the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena that the pacifist group now faces the tough choice of either violating long-held beliefs or risking government fines.
The group wants the appeals court to rule that a trial should be held for its suit seeking a religious exemption from civil and criminal sanctions against employers in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.
The suit was dismissed in 1989 by U.S. District Judge James Ideman of Los Angeles, who ruled that the desires of the group "cannot overcome the government's interest in immigration control as a matter of law."
A judge on the appellate court, which took the case under advisement, wanted to know what the implications might be of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this year that a religious organization is not entitled to exemptions when a law applies to all segments of the public.
Attorney Carlos Holguin, who represented the Quaker agency, argued that the United States "has managed to accommodate religious exemptions" granted to small religious bodies with sincerely held beliefs.
But Steven Richards Valentine, a Justice Department attorney, said the Supreme Court ruling means the government no longer has to show compelling reasons to deny exemptions to religious bodies. Valentine noted that Congress provided no mechanisms for religious exemptions in the immigration act.
Judge Procter Hug asked Holguin whether other religious organizations, and even individual employers with strong religious beliefs, would be able to seek exemptions from the immigration law if the Quaker group wins its suit. Holguin replied that many other religious groups, even those supporting the Quaker argument, are complying with the law and would be unlikely to switch their stance.
Spokesmen for the Service Committee said there may be some undocumented workers among its 450 employees across the nation, but that no employee has been asked to provide proof that they are in the country legally.
A total of 1,459 employers in California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii have been assessed $8.2 million in fines for violating the employer sanctions section of the law, according to Ron Rogers, a spokesman for the the Immigration and Naturalization Service western regional office in Laguna Niguel.
"We apply the law across the board to everyone," Rogers said in an interview. He said he did not know of any religious organization that has been fined.
More than 100 organizations have filed friend of the court briefs in support of the American Friends Service Committee suit, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Methodist Church's General Board of Church and Society, the leadership conference of Catholic religious orders of nuns and the social action commission of Reform Judaism.