Can Criminals Hide in Church?

On the tradition of religious sanctuary.

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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.)

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.)

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