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Episcopal Church Sues Trump Administration Over Travel Ban


A church is suing the Trump administration, claiming it can't perform one of its religious duties. That duty is resettling refugees, and the suit comes from the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia in Washington state. Will James of member station KNKX reports.

WILL JAMES, BYLINE: At the diocese refugee resettlement office in Seattle, women in headscarves are gathered for an English class. A mother of three from Somalia sits down with her caseworker and finds out her social security card has come in the mail.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It came today.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It came today.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I've been waiting to tell you that it came today. So...


JAMES: The card means she can get a job. The U.S. government relies on religious groups to resettle many of the people who come here fleeing persecution. This Episcopal diocese helps about 200 refugees a year build a life in the Puget Sound region from scratch. Greg Hope runs the resettlement program. He says each case is an intense undertaking.

GREG HOPE: We find the apartment, and then it's a matter of arranging social services and jobs and English classes. And for most refugees, within three, four or five months of arrival, they're going to have to be paying the rent for themselves.

JAMES: Diocese leaders say this is the work the Trump administration is upending with an executive order banning refugees. Many refugees who pass through this office are from two of the affected nations, Iraq and Somalia. About a hundred people this office was preparing to help were stranded overseas. They started trickling in again after a judge put a temporary halt on the refugee ban.

Earlier this month, the diocese joined a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Trump administration. It's asking a federal judge to overturn the order for good and ensure those refugees can keep arriving.

GREG RICKEL: Many of them are not Christian, but it's not about that. It's about us being Christian to them.

JAMES: Bishop Greg Rickel, who leads the diocese, says the lawsuit is also about asserting the right of a church to practice its faith, in particular the Bible's call for Christians to welcome the stranger.

RICKEL: So welcoming the stranger is a gospel mandate.

JAMES: And what does that mean - welcoming the stranger?

RICKEL: The stranger is someone who we maybe don't know, don't understand, wouldn't usually be around. For us as Christians, we would say the stranger always comes to us as Jesus.

JAMES: For supporters of the refugee ban, it's a chance for the government to craft new vetting procedures and create a sense of safety about the people entering the country. Washington state's Republican Party leader, Susan Hutchison, defended the order at a news conference shortly after it came down.


SUSAN HUTCHISON: I think once this vetting is in place, people will feel very relieved and very welcoming of any of our Islamic friends.

JAMES: But diocese leaders point out refugees already go through years of rigorous interviews, background checks and medical screenings before they arrive. Greg Rickel, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, says he thinks a lot of the fear around refugees is based on a misunderstanding of how much vetting already goes on. And for him, confronting any lingering unease is just another religious obligation.

RICKEL: We do often lean towards security. We lean towards what we know. So I think that's a natural inclination. I think at least for us as Christians, Jesus was constantly calling us to move beyond that.

JAMES: It's a call he hopes his church can keep answering. For NPR News, I'm Will James in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK DRAKE SONG, "ROAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Will James covers business, labor, and the South Sound region for KPLU. He came to the station from Newsday in his home state of New York.