Springfield, Mass., Mayor Domenic Sarno Takes On The First Amendment

Apr 13, 2018

Ever since a Springfield, Massachusetts, church opened its doors last month to an undocumented woman from Peru about to be deported, Mayor Domenic Sarno has been trying to shut it down. The First Amendment could ultimately block him.

South Congregational Church is one of at least three houses of worship in Massachusetts choosing to provide sanctuary. Churches, synagogues and mosques are considered by the federal government as "sensitive locations" where immigration officials are less likely to enter.

But the church has created this safe place for Gisella Collazo in a city whose mayor was one of the first elected leaders to declare publicly in 2017 that Springfield is not a sanctuary city.

The term generally describes locales that don’t cooperate with federal immigration officials. Some communities began labeling themselves such as the Trump administration began to more actively enforce U.S. immigration laws.

When South Congregational, one of thousands of houses of worship under the roof of the United Church of Christ, allowed Collazo to live in their building, along with her two American born children, church officials said they were compelled to do so as part of their religious mission.

That's where the First Amendment comes in. 

“To feed the hungry, to visit the homeless, to visit those in prison and set them free, and to welcome the stranger,” said Kelly Gallagher from the United Church of Christ's Massachusetts Conference.

She quoted from the Gospel of Matthew. That verse, Gallagher said, drives South Congregational, among others, to welcome all, to provide sanctuary.  

A Political Move?

Mayor Sarno sees it differently: that a church providing sanctuary is a political move, and it goes against his non-sanctuary-city edict. 

Sarno saw the move as a change in the church's status, as he said last month to WWLP-Channel 22 News.

“They're not a house of worship anymore, now,” Sarno said.

Sarno has tried, unsuccessfully so far, to shut the church down. Concerned about safety, and believing the church was in violation of city building codes, he sought a court order to send in city inspection staff. For providing short-term shelter, the city found minor violations that were fixed within the day.

But Sarno continues to investigate whether he can strip the church of its tax-exemption status, as he told staff, and "to the fullest extent of the law," he said on the city's website.

NEPR asked the mayor numerous times in the past two weeks if he would comment further, and he declined our invitation.

The Only Mayor In The Country

“As far as we know, there is no other mayor [in the country] that has responded in this way, been so bold with his statements,” said Oren Nimni, with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice. The Boston-based organization has been around since President John F. Kennedy requested private lawyers use their training to pursue civil rights.   

When South Congregational’s own lawyer Christine Tetrault heard Sarno’s description of the church, she said she didn’t even know how to respond, because it is so clear to her, and to others, that the church’s freedom to act on its mission is protected by the First Amendment.

Government Can’t Regulate Faith

An attorney with the American Jewish Committee in New York City, Mark Stern, has spent a career looking at church state issues.

“The mayor, in saying, 'Well, if they're housing illegal aliens or undocumented aliens they cease to be a church,' is simply wrong,” Stern said. “Spectacularly wrong.” 

Clashes between churches and the regnant political culture are not untypical, Stern said. While he can understand why it's infuriating for people who’ve gone through the federal immigration system, like Sarno's own Italian family did many years ago, to watch current immigration scenarios unfold, there's a 1,500 year history with Christian churches in particular serving as sources of sanctuary.

“And there’s the human reason not to live by ‘the rule of law,’” Stern said.

If this disagreement ever goes to court, Stern said, judges would measure whether a church's decision is motivated by religious belief, and the only thing the courts test is the sincerity of the belief.

“Not its truth, and not whether it appears to the observer as rational,” Stern said.

The Supreme Court famously said, “people may be believe what they cannot prove,” Stern said.

Why Would Sarno Take On The First Amendment?

Jerold Duquette has lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, his entire life. He says he knows Sarno well, and is a supporter. But along with others, Duquette is not sure why the mayor got involved in an issue he could have easily avoided, and his actions are over the top.

“He didn't say as a matter of law, we should be vigilant, and make sure the laws are followed. He in fact took extra steps in the direction of, ‘We're going to get this church,’” Duquette said.

Duquette, a political scientist at Central Connecticut State University, said he can't dismiss the possibility that Sarno, as the son of Italian immigrants, is offended by the church's actions. It's unfair, though, to compare the mayor to President Donald Trump, as some have, Duquette said.

For whatever reason, Sarno has taken on this church, Duquette said -- and it's not as a stepping stone. These are not the moves of a mayor who wants to be in Congress.

“I assume he wants to run again for mayor, and I assume he sees the only threat to his re-election coming from his left,” Duquette said.

That was evident when the Springfield City Council unanimously voted in favor of an order that declares the city will not interfere with religious institutions that provide sanctuary to immigrants.

“No mayor passes any edict telling any church what to do, particularly as it relates to sanctuaries,” said Council President Michael Fenton.

Sarno has said he fully supports legal immigration, and that his stance about not being a sanctuary city is based on the law.

"My administration has a fiduciary responsibility not to jeopardize potentially millions of dollars of federal funding,” he said on the city’s website.

He urged the federal government to come up with a "plausible, concrete solution to this issue and stop dropping it in the laps of municipal government."