An Alabama United Methodist bishop told almost 300 middle-Tennessee leaders of faith in late November that he was sorry for being inactive while an anti-immigration bill moved into law in Alabama.

He also called on Tennessee clergy to speak up.

“I’m up here in Tennessee … to repent,” said William Willimon, bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, who added he was wrong not to take seriously Republican Gov. Robert Bentley’s anti-immigration campaign promises.

“It’s a rare thing … ever to see a Methodist bishop to admit to wrong,” said Willimon, the keynote speaker at a Nashville breakfast Nov. 30 sponsored by Clergy for Tolerance.

Signed into law in June by Bentley, Alabama House Bill 56 is considered the nations harshest antiimmigration law.

Federal courts have ruled against sections of Alabama’s law.

“I’m sorry that those of us faith leaders in Alabama, with the exception of the Catholics, were slow to realize how nefarious this immigration legislation would be for us and for our state,” said Willimon.

“Sitting here this morning,” said Willimon, “I was ashamed that I haven’t had any similar kind of gathering in Birmingham.”

Willimon pointed out that those who self-identify as Christians were mostly responsible for the legislation in Alabama.

“Please don’t leave these matters to your politicians,” added Willimon. “It has proven to be infinitely more difficult to speak against a law that has been duly constituted.”

Clergy for Tolerance is an interfaith coalition that works to educate and mobilize faith leaders about the issue of immigration. It played a role in 2009 to defeat an English-only referendum in Nashville.

The interfaith breakfast included pastors, priests, imams, rabbis and monks. It was organized in anticipation of anti-immigration legislation in the upcoming 2012 Tennessee legislative session. A bill akin to Alabama’s HB 56 is expected.

Another speaker at the breakfast was Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

“We need discernment for how to answer those who absolutize man’s law and ignore God’s law,” said Parham. “They demand the rule of law and they ignore the Golden Rule.”

He said, “Everyone here knows that sometimes when we absolutize the law, we institutionalize the wrong.”

To illustrate the flawed nature of some laws, Parham said: “Segregation was perfectly legal and thoroughly immoral. The internment of Japanese was perfectly legal and thoroughly immoral. Denying women the right to vote was perfectly legal and thoroughly immoral. Payday lending is perfectly legal and thoroughly immoral.”

He challenged Tennessee clergy “to build the moral capital in houses of faith for the coming tsunami of anti-immigration rhetoric and anti-immigration laws.”

Clergy for Tolerance has announced it will hold a screening of the documentary Gospel Without Borders, about faith and immigration, in January 2012.

Click here to see photos from the clergy breakfast.

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