Shutting down Catholic ministry to migrants violates religious freedom act

(OSV News) — A state judge July 2 denied Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s effort to shut down Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, a Catholic nonprofit serving migrants.

The ruling by Judge Francisco X. Dominguez of the District Court of El Paso County found that Paxton’s office “failed to establish probable grounds for the proceedings” and that the effort violated the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“The record before this Court makes clear that the Texas Attorney General’s use of the request to examine documents from Annunciation House was a pretext to justify its harassment of Annunciation House employees and the persons seeking refuge,” Dominguez ruled in granting Annunciation House’s application for relief.

“This Court previously expressed its concern that the Attorney General did not identify what laws he believed were being violated from the outset,” the ruling said.

Paxton’s office did not immediately respond to OSV News’ request for comment.

Allegations from Paxton’s office

In court filings and press statements, his office alleged Annunciation House runs “stash houses,” facilitates illegal border crossings, conceals “illegally present aliens from law enforcement” and did not turn over documents in its investigation.

Annunciation House attorneys denied wrongdoing or illegal conduct and said Paxton’s office did not adhere to appropriate legal processes for requesting documents from them.

Paxton’s effort to shut down Annunciation House comes as some Republican lawmakers have grown increasingly hostile toward nongovernmental organizations, including Catholic ones, that provide resources such as food and shelter to migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Political motivation and due process

A February suit filed by Paxton previously sought to shut down Annunciation House, accusing it of “human smuggling,” in a move that was denounced by local elected officials and Catholic immigration advocates, including El Paso Bishop Mark J. Seitz. In March, Dominguez issued an order blocking Paxton’s subpoena of Annunciation House, finding both that Paxton’s effort seemed politically motivated and that it must go through appropriate due process in the state court system.

The Diocese of El Paso did not immediately respond to OSV News’ request for comment.

In its filing, Paxton’s office sought to downplay the “religious component” of Annunciation House’s mission, arguing, “Instead, Annunciation House’s members appear to subscribe to a more Bohemian set of ‘seven commandments,’ including commandments to ‘visit’ people when ‘incarcerated’ and “care (for them) when they’re sick.”

However, those quotes come from a witness who appeared to be referring to what the Catholic Church calls the “seven corporal works of mercy,” according to a review of the document by OSV News.

Pope Francis’ reaction

The case even caught the attention of Pope Francis, who criticized Paxton’s attempt to shut down Annunciation House, calling it “madness” during a recent interview with CBS News.

In the pontiff’s first one-on-one interview with a U.S. broadcaster, CBS journalist and interviewer Norah O’Donnell asked, “The State of Texas is attempting to shut down a Catholic charity on the border with Mexico that offers undocumented migrants humanitarian assistance. What do you think of that?”

“That is madness. Sheer madness,” Pope Francis replied.

Annunciation House operates several shelters in the El Paso area, helping migrants and refugees with food, housing and other assistance, as well as providing information about how to fill out the required legal documents to seek asylum in the U.S.

This post Shutting down Catholic ministry to migrants violates religious freedom act appeared on Our Sunday Visitor.

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