Charity is not just a side gig for religious organizations. In many instances, it is the practice of religion itself.
This principle came into stark relief when a July 28 executive order issued by Texas Governor Greg Abbott sparked a legal battle with the federal government, catching a Catholic charity in the middle. At stake is the ability of religious organizations to practice faith in charitable action – while executing a mission that ought to be of great value to the State of Texas.
Gov. Abbott issued his order after reports about a maskless migrant family at a restaurant in La Joya, Texas. The family was supposed to be under quarantine at a nearby hotel after some of its members tested positive for COVID-19. The governor echoed statewide concerns about the influx of migrants and a spike in COVID-19 cases, citing a 900 percent increase in COVID-positive migrants detained by federal officials in the Rio Grande Valley.
The order prohibits group vehicle transport of migrants by private entities, backed by a threat to confiscate vehicles. The order would shut down the work of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley (CCRGV), which provides families, pregnant mothers, single women and others with food, medical care and shelter from the hot Texas sun. Under the order, CCRGV could not shuttle migrants from its Humanitarian Respite Center, where migrants are legally dropped off by Customs and Border Patrol, to appropriate destinations.
Those who test negative are either admitted to the shelter or shuttled by the charity to other destinations while they await their hearings. Those who test positive are shuttled to one of several hotels contracted by Catholic Charities (or other sites identified by government officials), where they quarantine along with their families.
Two days after Gov. Abbott signed his executive order, the Department of Justice filed suit to block it and issued an emergency request to stop its enforcement. The federal government argues the order would jeopardize the health and safety of noncitizens in federal government custody – along with federal law enforcement personnel, their families and others in Texas border communities.
CCRGV contends that the order threatens daily operations and wrongfully endangers its religious mission to provide migrants with food, water, medical care, and a place to briefly rest.
Sister Norma Pimentel: “Serving those in need, and especially those we serve through the Humanitarian Respite Center, is part of our sincere religious exercise as Catholics.”
The Becket law firm filed an amicus brief on behalf of CCRGV, supporting the Justice Department’s legal challenge and arguing that the order harms immigrants, increases the community spread of COVID-19, and restricts religious exercise protected under the First Amendment.
“Immigration, border security and COVID-19 are hard issues without easy answers. But shutting down this ministry will make it harder, not easier to deal with those problems,” said Becket attorney Lori Windham.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in El Paso issued a temporary restraining order on August 13, allowing Catholic Charities to continue its mission. Sister Norma Pimentel, who leads the nonprofit, said she remains deeply concerned that the governor’s order will worsen the COVID-19 crisis and have a negative impact on migrant families and others in the region.
“Serving those in need, and especially those we serve through the Humanitarian Respite Center, is part of our sincere religious exercise as Catholics,” Pimentel said.
The court must now decide whether to issue an injunction against the executive order while the Justice Department’s case against the State of Texas is pending.
Protect The 1st supports the right of CCRGV to express its faith through good works. We applaud Becket’s work on the nonprofit’s behalf. Governor Abbott is right to be concerned about the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases, but his good intentions inadvertently compromise the charitable practice of religion and could have a boomerang effect on preventing the spread of infection.