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Churches That Fought 187 Now Soul-Searching

November 20, 1994|REBECCA TROUNSON and YVETTE CABRERA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Only days after the passage of Proposition 187, Dr. Samuel Scheibler's tiny congregation moved quickly to help children who may one day be affected by the controversial initiative that prohibits education, social services and all but emergency health care to illegal immigrants.

St. Albans, a 70-member ethnically mixed Anglican church in Brea, began to organize a tutorial program, anticipating that undocumented immigrant children may ultimately be kicked out of school under provisions of the sweeping initiative overwhelmingly approved by voters Nov. 8.

"We take the position that the people of California have the right to pass ballot initiatives, and we don't dispute the fact that illegal immigrants are, after all, illegal," Scheibler said.

"But children brought over the border are victims of their circumstances. . . . We wanted to try to alleviate the problems that might result" from the proposition's passage.

The congregation may be the first in Orange County to lay the groundwork for such a program, but other members of the clergy, many of whom openly criticized the initiative, are considering ways to respond to its passage and wondering why their words of opposition from the pulpit had so little apparent impact.

The issue is a troubling one to the priests, ministers, nuns and rabbis who fought against 187, convinced that its aim of denying most public benefits to illegal immigrants constituted not only a political issue but a moral one.

Despite opposition from every major religious denomination in California--and grass-roots efforts by the clergy to rally their congregants against it--the statewide ballot measure passed by a margin of 59% to 41%. In Orange County, voters favored it by 67% to 33%.

Faced with that result, several clergy members said they could not help but wonder whether religious leaders are no longer able to sway their flocks on such thorny political and ethical issues.

At a meeting Friday of Catholic clergy from parishes across Orange County, several priests asked whether "we (have) lost our moral power," said Father John Lenihan, pastor of St. Boniface Catholic Church in Anaheim.

Not so, answered Msgr. Jaime Soto, vicar for the Hispanic community of the Diocese of Orange.

"Some priests say people chose not to listen to us (about Proposition 187), but others ask what would have happened if we had said nothing," Soto said. "I think we did have an impact, even if it was to make some voters very angry at us.

"Unfortunately, for many people, we were not successful in helping them understand the moral and social consequences of this proposition."

The election result signaled "an alarming trend," in the Catholic Church, which already has "a shepherd-flock gap" between the attitudes of lay Catholics and their bishops' strict stands against legalized abortion and the death penalty, wrote editor Tod Tamberg in a post-election issue of the Tidings, the newspaper of the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese.

According to Times exit polling, 69% of Protestant voters cast ballots for Proposition 187, despite public opposition expressed by United Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian and other mainline church leaders.

Catholics, who make up the state's largest denomination, opposed it by a narrow 51% to 49%. But non-Latino white Catholics supported the measure 58% to 42%.

The Rev. Gary Collins, pastor of St. Mark's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, said members of his church who disagreed with his opposition to Proposition 187 often asked him how he could support those who broke the law.

"I tried to explain that the church looks at the law, but also at a second level as well," said Collins, whose 300-member church is considered one of Orange County's more progressive congregations.

Collins said he finds it difficult to gauge the effect of the clergy's opposition to the initiative; no polls, for example, asked voters both their views on Proposition 187 and whether they belonged to congregations whose pastors actively opposed it. But he said he believed it would have passed by a greater majority if the clergy had not spoken out against it.

Still, he said, the fact that the measure was approved and by such a large margin may be "another sign that the church doesn't have the great moral power" over its members that it once did.

Lenihan, whose 7,000-member Catholic church is predominantly Latino but includes a number of white and Vietnamese American families, said churchgoers may have felt justified in disregarding their pastors' views because the issue was not as clear as other recent political questions on which the clergy has taken a stand, including abortion and euthanasia.

"The bottom line is we didn't have quite the same clear moral imperative in this one," Lenihan said. "For many, I think the issue was blurred by the notion that these people were here illegally."

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