Religious leaders protest license markings

Mar. 03, 2013 @ 06:39 PM

The leaders of three area church and synagogue congregations say they’ve asked members to put pink tape on their driver’s licenses to protest a recent immigration-related decision from the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Department leaders, with Gov. Pat McCrory’s blessing, have said they’d issue special licenses to young undocumented immigrants the federal government is allowing to stay in this country. The licenses will have a pink border and say the bearer has “no lawful status.”

The special markings are what’s drawing protest from the United Church of Chapel Hill, its branch Iglesia Unida de Chapel Hill and the Durham-based Judea Reform Congregation.

Judea Reform’s senior rabbi, John Friedman, said news of the DOT decision on the special markings produced “an audible gasp of horror” from members of his congregation when he briefed them during services on Friday night.

“The reason there was such a reaction was because members of my congregation viscerally identified this with Jews [in Europe] having to wear stars during the Holocaust,” Friedman said.

He said Judea Reform members would add pink tape to their licenses “in solidarity” with the mostly Hispanic immigrants targeted by the DOT measure. He also criticized McCrory for supporting the department’s move.

“The amazing thing to me is that Gov. McCrory would not have had the historical sensitivity to realize what this would evoke in people,” Friedman said.

David Mateo, a United Church associate pastor who leads the Igelsia Unida congregation, said the markings appear designed to both humiliate and oppress those who receive licenses under the program.

“Beyond the motivations of putting the color on the driving license, [it’s] just saying to the community, ‘We know who they are and where they are,’” Mateo said. “The purpose of the driving license is not that. It’s just to say, ‘This is all right, you can drive.’ But it’s become an instrument of repression in some way.”

He added that the color choice itself recalled one of the practices of controversial Phoenix, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose department is suspected of discriminating against Hispanics and is known for forcing jail inmates to don pink underwear.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a November ruling that it’s fair to infer that Arpaio and his staff chose the color “to symbolize a loss of masculine identity and power, to shame and stigmatize the male prisoners as feminine.”

Jill Edens, co-pastor of United Church of Chapel Hill, said she and other church leaders assembled the protest quickly, “because we’re hoping if there is a response that can spread, that perhaps this won’t happen.”

The marking proposal has drawn other protests already, plus the filing of a bill by state Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, and other Democrats that would bar DOT from issuing licenses distinguishable from its normal, run-of-the-mill output.

Luebke attended a news conference at United Church Sunday afternoon and conceded the bill is unlikely to pass, given that the leaders of the state House and Senate share McCrory’s affiliation with the Republican Party.

But “we’re going to ask the speaker of the House [Rep. Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg] to give us a hearing on the bill and to have a debate going in the General Assembly.”

He added that he and other legislators plan to hold another news conference today and are expecting the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh to send a representative to express solidarity.

Also opposed to the special markings is the N.C. Council of Churches. Its consultant for peace, David LaMotte, attended Sunday’s news conference and said his organization “unquestionably stands with the immigrant community on this question.”

“From a faith perspective, you can’t look at this and defend it,” he said of DOT’s special-markings plan. “God doesn’t see divisions. There is no east, no west, no north and no south. It is for us to stand with the marginalized, if people are being marginalized.”

Support from the Council of Churches is providing most of the religious weight behind the protest at this point, as it claims to represent about 1.5 million North Carolina churchgoers.

Reform Judaism and the United Church of Christ are tiny denominations in this state, between them representing about 1 percent of North Carolina’s 4.6 million churchgoers, according to 2010 figures from the Association of Religious Data Archives.

The Catholic Church has another 9.4 percent of the state’s churchgoers.

Southern Baptist are by far the state’s largest denomination, its members accounting for about 33 percent of those who regularly attend services.

The DOT decision is controversial on both ends of the political spectrum because there are activists and officials who’d prefer it didn’t issue the licenses at all. Another House member, Rep. Mark Brody, R-Union, has introduced a bill that would block any issuance until mid-June. He has indicated that he wants the General Assembly, not the executive branch, to make the key decisions.

The license dispute grows out of the long-running debate about what to do with the children of illegal immigrants who were brought to their country by their parents.

Many arrived as infants and toddlers and know no other country. “Their parents might as well have come from Minnesota and Montana as Mexico,” Luebke said.

In lieu of Congressional action granting them legal status, President Barack Obama directed immigration officials to issue permits allowing “childhood arrivals” to stay in the country for up to two years, with possibility of renewal.