Earlier this month, Manhattan pastor Kaji Douša filed a federal lawsuit accusing U.S. officials of violating her religious liberty by detaining and surveilling her over her ministry to migrants at the border.
Now, more than 850 ordained clergy from around North America have formed an interfaith coalition in support of Dousa, senior pastor of Park Avenue Christian Church.
“All of us feel as though this is an infringement on our right to preach and teach and lead,” said Rabbi Joshua Stanton of Manhattan’s East End Temple, who works with undocumented immigrants through the New Sanctuary Coalition movement that Dousa heads. “The idea that I could somehow be limited in who I could reach out to simply because of their country of origin or simply because of where they wanted the ceremony held is unfathomable. I couldn’t be a rabbi if that were the case.”
Stanton joined hundreds of leaders who signed an open letter in support of Dousa. Other signatories include faith leaders from the United Church of Christ, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Yale Divinity School, Muslim Community Network, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and hundreds of other houses of worship and organizations.
The coalition hopes to bring Dousa’s case to the limelight by advocating on her behalf to elected officials, said Corey Dukes from Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit that is co-counsel in Dousa’s lawsuit and helped organize support for her.
On July 8, Dousa filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection after discovering that the agencies had listed her in a secret government database collecting information on the Central American migrant caravan traveling toward the U.S. border last fall.
DHS also detained and interrogated Dousa, as well as revoking her Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection, or SENTRI, pass to expedite border crossings.
Those actions, her supporters argue, have interfered with Dousa’s ministry and endanger all U.S. faith leaders.
“Migrants face a desperate situation at the Southern Border,” a statement from the coalition reads. “And the work that we do as clergy is crucial to them. We believe there to be a right for us to offer our pastoral services. … In this country, the government cannot decide to whom we may preach or with whom we may pray.”
Faith leaders from more than 40 states have added their names – and at one point, Dousa said, more than 50 clergy members were signing the letter every hour.
“I have been really strongly supported by the clergy community and the faith community in general,” Dousa said. “People very easily connect my story with what could happen to their pastor or their rabbi or themselves, and they’re mobilizing.”
Her lawsuit notes that U.S. officials had “collected detailed information about her and her pastoral work” and argues that placing her on the watchlist, part of a project dubbed Operation Secure Line, violated her First Amendment rights and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The DHS did not offer comment on the pending litigation.
Dousa said she fears that other clergy could face the same treatment from the government that she has received.
“I believe that placing me as the only clergy person on Operation Secure Line was a way to test out the boundaries of what kind of surveillance they can do,” Dousa said.
In late 2018, Dousa helped lead the Sanctuary Caravan, a 40-day volunteer mobile clinic of faith leaders who provided pastoral services to migrants seeking U.S. asylum in the United States.
When she reentered the U.S. in early January, federal immigration officials detained her for a secondary screening and interrogated her about her years of ministry near the border and in New York City.
“Rev. Dousa is one of the most respected religious leaders in New York and, I would argue, the United States,” Stanton said. “If the government is targeting her, I can’t help but think I’m in jeopardy and other religious leaders who look up to her are as well.”
Dousa, who is a member of the United Church of Christ, previously led a California church 20 miles from the Southern border.
Though she told Religion News Service that the possibility of continued surveillance has compromised her ability to minister to migrants with complicated immigration statuses, she has continued her advocacy work.
Earlier this month, Dousa helped lead the coordinated Lights for Liberty protests, in which thousands of demonstrators gathered in hundreds of cities to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
“To reject a migrant is to cast away God’s angels, which I am unwilling to do,” Dousa said. “For this, my country has decided to punish me. But I will not look away. I will continue to look closely — to listen, to imagine and to call us into a better way. Free me and my colleagues to do our work with migrants and we will find that better way.”
A prominent Manhattan pastor has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that U.S. officials violated her religious freedom when she was put on a watchlist over her ministry to migrants at the border.
The Rev. Kaji Douša, senior pastor of Park Avenue Christian Church and longtime advocate for immigrants’ rights, was the only clergy member listed in a secret government database created to collect information on the caravan of Central American migrants that traveled through Mexico toward the U.S. border last fall.
Her lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection argues that placing her on the watchlist and surveilling her violated her First Amendment rights and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“I think that what ICE and CBP and DHS are doing is not legal,” Douša told Religion News Service “There is so much rhetoric about so-called illegal immigration, and I don’t understand why people who say ‘do it legally’ don’t apply those same standards to their own government.”
People protest against U.S. immigration policies on the American side, right, of the Mexico-America border near Tijuana on Dec. 10, 2018. RNS photo by Jair Cabrera Torres
Working with the New Sanctuary Coalition, an immigrant advocacy organization, Douša participated in a 40-day “Sanctuary Caravan” of faith leaders in Tijuana, Mexico, late last year to provide pastoral services to hundreds of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. When she returned to the U.S. in January, federal immigration officials detained her for several hours and interrogated her about her work ministering to migrants at the border and in New York City.
“They interrogated her about her motives,” the complaint states. “They interrogated her about her associations. They revealed to Pastor Douša that they had collected detailed information about her and her pastoral work. And they revoked the access she had previously been granted to expedited border crossing.”
Under a program dubbed Operation Secure Line and revealed through leaked DHS documents obtained by San Diego’s NBC affiliate in March, the federal government targeted more than 50 journalists, lawyers and immigration advocates and subjected them to repeated questioning by border authorities.
The documents included Douša’s name and photo with a yellow “X” across her face, reportedly denoting that her Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection, or SENTRI, pass to expedite border crossings had been revoked, apparently due to her connection with the migrants.
ICE declined to comment on the allegations due to the pending litigation.
Douša, a United Church of Christ pastor, has spent years ministering to migrants, both at her Park Avenue church and previously as a pastor at the United Church of Christ of La Mesa, near the border in California.
More than 230 clergy members, including UCC’s top leadership and prominent faith leaders such as the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rabbi Joshua Stanton, have signed a letter supporting Douša.
“In this country, the government cannot decide to whom we may preach or with whom we may pray,” the letter reads. “We believe we should take a stand and say so together … Because, mark our words: If we let them come for some of us now, they will come for all of us in time. That we cannot abide.”
Douša argued that the agencies “significantly burdened” her free exercise of religion, which includes serving the “least of these,” per an excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew that introduces Douša’s complaint.
The lawsuit also alleges that the government has diminished her ministry by compromising her “covenant of confidentiality” with worshippers, who she said include immigrants as well as prominent and powerful Manhattanites.
“It’s very, very difficult for people to be able to have a conversation where they unburden their conscience and seek the path to redemption when they’re worried about whether or not there’s a microphone in the confessional,” Douša said. “I don’t know the extent of the government surveillance. I don’t want to make anybody more vulnerable.”
Rev. Kaji Douša. Photo courtesy of UCC
One of the women she had officiated a wedding for in Tijuana was questioned specifically about her connection with Douša when she presented herself for asylum, the lawsuit alleges.
“The U.S. government cannot retaliate against a member of the clergy because it disfavors the people she leads in prayer,” Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP, the law firm representing Douša along with Protect Democracy, said in a statement. “While this sort of authoritarian tactic might fly in other nations we revile as unjust, our Constitution and laws forbid it.”
“I’m not a criminal,” Douša said. “Nothing I’ve done is illegal. I don’t encourage anyone to do anything illegal. And I don’t think they could ever really allege that because there would be no evidence to support it.”
Instead, she said, the government “seems to want to make it as difficult as possible to know the truth about what’s happened at the border. And I see and witness what is happening at our border, and there’s very clear evidence that government does not like that.”
In a related case, federal prosecutors announced last week that they will pursue a retrial against border activist Scott Warren, a volunteer with the faith-based migrant advocacy group No More Deaths, who is facing felony charges and possible prison time for providing humanitarian aid to migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.