The practice of sanctuary which is rooted in scripture, continues to be a powerful force in the politics of the United States. From the Middle Ages to the present, sanctuary cities and faith communities have served as safe havens or sites of refuge for vulnerable persons; the most popular example is the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s and the New Sanctuary Movement of the 21st century, which have sheltered undocumented immigrants from deportation and given them a platform to speak.
Usually, these vulnerable people and activists, whether religious and secular, are advocating for sanctuary with the goal of changing policy and providing humanitarian support. In the 1991 case American Baptist Church v. Thornburgh, a coalition of 80 religious and advocacy groups sued the U.S. attorney general on behalf of Guatemalan and Salvadoran asylum seekers resulting in protections for asylum seekers as well as settlements for those denied access to asylum due to political concerns. The New Sanctuary Movement strives to humanize conversations about immigration policy in the United States. Participants house affected refugees and undocumented persons in houses of worship and give them a platform to share their stories and change hearts and minds about United States immigration policy.
Earlier this year, as the overturn of Roe seemed more likely, some states announced they were becoming sanctuaries for those seeking abortions. For example, California is working to increase access and reduce costs for its citizens, as well as those from other states who will come to the state seeking reproductive health care. While most of those proposals are not religious, they have plenty in common with previous sanctuary movements, including a critique of federal law and a focus on caring for the vulnerable. Now that federal abortion rights have been struck down by the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson, we need a new sanctuary movement that takes seriously the threat posed by the criminalization of abortion and acts to care for those seeking it.
Origins of sanctuary
In 1 Kings 1:50-53, we find one of Israel’s practices of sanctuary. For those who were afraid for their life, they could receive clemency from the king, provided that they had not committed murder or treason. For those who study sanctuary, this is commonly referred to as “altar sanctuary.” Adonijah was “in fear of Solomon” and grabbed hold of the horns on the altar and pleaded for mercy. Solomon granted Adonijah mercy and allowed him to return home. But sanctuary is not always granted to those who seek it. For example, in 1 Kings 2:28-34 Joab claims sanctuary out of fear of retribution in his killing of David’s son Absalom and Absalom’s commander Amasa, but his plea is refused because he was guilty of murder.
Over time, altar sanctuary became more codified, and “cities of refuge” were proclaimed throughout Israel. Cities of refuge allowed those who committed manslaughter unintentionally to flee to certain cities in Israel and remain protected from “the avenger of blood” so long as the high priest lived, with some versions also mandating a trial before the congregation (Deuteronomy 4:43; Joshua 20:1-9). The penalty of death was not permissible if someone killed another person accidentally.
In the Middle Ages, sanctuary became an arrangement whereby those who had committed a crime could flee to a church and receive refuge for a set period of time. At the end of this set period, the accused would either surrender to authorities or face exile.
In more recent history, sanctuary movement activists including Robert Rubin in San Francisco further developed the biblical practice of cities of refuge into “sanctuary cities.” These municipalities refuse to share information or cooperate with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In doing so, they refuse to play an active role in immigration enforcement, making the case that immigration laws are immoral and that all immigrants, regardless of their status, should be presented with a path for citizenship. In 2018, it was reported that there were more than 500 sanctuary cities in the United States. During the Trump administration, sanctuary cities like San Francisco and New York came under attack as Trump threatened to withhold all of their federal funding. A lynchpin of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric was the depiction of sanctuary cities as places that “breed crime.”
Abortion sanctuary ought to cause people of faith to ask key questions about how they will practice hospitality after Roe's overturn. Does a pregnant person who is seeking reproductive health care that is increasingly criminalized, putting their health at risk, merit sanctuary?
At least one multi-faith coalition of people thinks so. SACReD is a multi-faith organization that is partnering with congregations, clergy, and lay people using a reproductive justice framework pioneered by Black women to ask people of faith to speak out, even if it’s controversial. SACReD doesn’t use the language of sanctuary, but their strategies can be adopted to imagine a new sanctuary movement.
Now that abortions are no longer federally protected, I imagine sanctuary will be practiced by communities of faith in the following ways:
● Re-establishing something like the Clergy Consultation Service, an interfaith effort that, before Roe, saw clergy provide counseling and referrals for reproductive health care. While the conditions that saw the CCS flourish have changed, clergy can still play a powerful role in connecting pregnant people with abortion services. As surveillance of pregnant people increases, those who are seeking an abortion will need help from community leaders they know personally.
● Accompanying people seeking abortion as they face increased harassment at abortion clinics.
● Providing housing and security for those who are seeking abortions while also protecting them from laws that attempt to reach across state boundaries and impose civil and legal punishments.
● Committing to lifting up the voices of abortion activists who have been working on these issues for decades. (Especially Black and brown people’s voices, as Black and brown pregnant people face disproportionately negative outcomes as a result of abortion bans.)
● Cultivating communities of care for people in churches who have previously had an abortion, countering the shame and stigma associated with reproductive health care. Nearly 1 in 4 women will have had an abortion by the time they are 45, and churches can make their communities safe for the sharing of those stories. Heart to Heart is one method for having these types of conversations.
● Establishing funds whereby communities of faith can help people access reproductive health care options that are no longer available in their state.
The good news is that congregations do not have to do it alone — they can look to those already doing the work like SACReD and Sistersong, learning from them and practicing their faith in a new context. Sanctuary is a practice that has stood the test of time and will continue to provide a safe harbor to vulnerable people. One of the most crucial tests of our time is applying sanctuary to new circumstances. As we enter a new era, people seeking abortions need communities of faith to step forward and practice sanctuary in new ways. If they answer the call, they’ll not only be imagining a new era of sanctuary, they will be grounding themselves in a rich scriptural tradition and living out their faith.