Civil Liberties and the USA PATRIOT Act

A Policy Statement Adopted by the Executive Board, North Carolina Council of Churches, December 2, 2002

The Issue

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, mark a watershed in American history. Never before had such terrible events struck so many people within our national borders. Within weeks, the President had proposed and the Congress had overwhelmingly adopted the USA PATRIOT Act as a means of preventing future such terrorist attacks. At the time, some faith groups (including several with denominational ties to the member bodies of the North Carolina Council of Churches) voiced strong concern about the scope of the PATRIOT Act. The impact of subsequent Executive Orders has only increased this concern.

Among the issues raised are the following:

  • The creation of a new category of crime-“domestic terrorism”-which could be interpreted to include some political protests and acts of civil disobedience.
  • “Sneak and peak” searches, which allow law enforcement authorities to enter a home, office, or other private place and conduct a search, take photographs, and download computer files without notifying the person whose property is being searched until after the search is completed. This new authority is not limited to anti-terrorism investigations.
  • Expanded wiretap authority, reducing or eliminating the role of judges in ensuring that electronic surveillance is carried out with proper justification and oversight.
  • Reduced privacy of student records which, when combined with the new crime of “domestic terrorism,” could have a chilling effect on student dissent.
  • Indefinite detention of non-citizens suspected of terrorism or endangering national security.
  • Access to individuals’ medical, mental health, financial, educational, bank and library records without showing probable cause. Libraries, hospitals, Internet service providers, and other institutions are prevented from informing customers/clients that their records have been released.
  • Eavesdropping on confidential communications between attorneys and clients in federal custody.
  • Limits on the disclosure of documents under the Freedom of Information Act
  • The listing of thousands of immigrant men with the Department of Homeland Security, based on their country of origin. All the targeted countries are ones with predominantly Muslim populations.

Those voicing concern have included individual leaders and agencies affiliated with the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, American Baptist Churches, American Friends Service Committee, Church Women United, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Church, and, among secular groups, the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Why People of Faith Should Care

People of faith are concerned about the erosion of civil liberties for at least three reasons.

First, we believe that our faith calls us to freedom. Moses was called by God to set his people free from Pharaoh’s oppression (Exodus 3:4ff). Jesus, in his first recorded sermon, echoed the prophet Isaiah in proclaiming liberty to captives and freedom to the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). The apostle Paul, as part of a lengthy discussion of liberty, noted “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). A central message of our Bible is one of freedom and liberation. While the specific liberties enshrined in our Bill of Rights were unknown to people in biblical times, the principle of freedom is clearly there.

Second, we are concerned when oppression singles out a particular group based on ethnicity, religion or immigrant status. Hebrew scriptures called the Hebrew people to care for the sojourner (or immigrant), and the reason for this protection grew out of the status of the Hebrew people as immigrants themselves (e.g. Exodus 23:9). Similarly, we have all (except Native Americans) been immigrants and/or members of ethnic minorities, so we should be concerned when profiling singles out immigrants or people of Arabic descent. Christians today do well to remember that all of us, regardless of church or denomination, have at some time in our histories been a persecuted minority, sometimes at the hands of other Christians, sometimes at the hands of those of non-Christian faiths, and sometimes at the hands of secular political ideologies. We should be deeply concerned today when our country singles out those of the Muslim faith. As the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) noted earlier this year, “[W]e are ‘all God’s children’ and therefore deserving of fair treatment regardless of culture, national origin, race and religion.”

Third, we value the importance of non-violent protest and of civil disobedience, noting, for example, the critical role that both played in the civil rights movement and in various efforts for peace. The chilling effect of the current attack on civil liberties should be of concern to all who demonstrate for positions which are not held by the majority, whether that be opposition to the war in Iraq, concern about international trade policies, or protests at an abortion clinic, and to all who support the right of people to engage in civil disobedience. The freedoms of our Bill of Rights were designed specifically to protect minorities, even unpopular ones, from the tyranny of the majority.

Recommendations

The North Carolina Council of Churches deplores the use of terrorism and violence, whether homegrown or foreign, as a means to achieve political ends. We continue to grieve for and with those who lost loved ones, friends, or colleagues in the attacks of September 11, 2001. However, we do believe it is not necessary to vindicate their loss or to defend ourselves by putting our civil liberties at risk or targeting members of groups based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, or immigrant status.

While we recognize the need to protect ourselves from terrorism, we support scrutiny of the PATRIOT Act, the proposed PATRIOT II Act, executive orders, and other governmental actions which restrict our civil liberties. Any expansion of law enforcement power or judicial power should offer significant additional protection against terrorism over already existing law, should be narrowly tailored to ensure the least effect on civil liberties, should maintain judicial oversight, and should not engage in profiling. Any provisions of current law not meeting these four tests should be repealed; any proposals not meeting them should be rejected.

We encourage state and local governments and individuals to evaluate the requirements of the PATRIOT Act and other federal provisions in light of the rights and liberties granted by the United States Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, and, when legally possible, not to participate in acts that violate our civil liberties and are inconsistent with the Constitution.

North Carolina Council of Churches North Carolina Council of Churches

The Council enables denominations, congregations, and people of faith to individually and collectively impact our state on issues such as economic justice and development, human well-being, equality, compassion and peace, following the example and mission of Jesus Christ. Learn more about our work here: www.ncchurches.org/about

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