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Briefings: Springfield Council Backs Church in Spat with Sarno…

Rev. Tom Gerstenlauer of South Congregational Church addresses the Council. (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—The City Council Monday night issued a stern rebuke to Mayor Domenic Sarno, ordering the city back off South Congregational Church, which is providing sanctuary to a woman facing deportation.  It came after Sarno demanded city officials inspect the church for code violations. He also caled for the assessor into look into whether the church’s sanctuary jeopardized the church’s tax status.

Set against the deportation push Donald Trump has instigated and his anti-immigrant stance, Sarno’s order set off a conflagration of outrage. While Sarno had claimed this was only to protect the city’s federal funding, the move stank of personal politics and pique. Activists and councilors quickly mobilized to assemble legislation to halt the action against South Congregational Church.

“These churches, the Springfield interfaith coalition, when they are providing sanctuary, they are expressing, they are fulfilling their religious mission,” at-large Councilor Timothy Ryan said, kicking off debate.

South Congregational Churhc (via wikipedia)

Supporters of Collazo and South Congregational church packed the Council chamber. The church’s minister, Rev. Tom Gerstenlauer, invoked Emma Lazarus’ poem affixed the Statue of Liberty and the Gospel of Mathew, namely the admonition to, among other things, greet and accept the stranger.

Gisella Collazo had sought refuge at the church after exhausting her options to remain in the country with her American husband and children. South Congregational had already incurred Sarno’s ire when it announced it would shelter those facing deportation.

On March 29, six councilors introduced the order that passed. Originally, councilors planned a special meeting on the item. However, it was eventually moved to the regular meeting Monday night.

As a practical matter, the order will have no immediate effect. Building Commissioner Steven Desilets had already obtained a warrant to inspect the church. He and fire officials did so last Tuesday. But they found no violations that threaten Collazo’s stay.

The mayor’s move is not, nor it cannot, come to good. (image made via Springfield mayoral portrait & files)

Still, the order would foreclose any further harassing action. After the inspection turned up little, Sarno appeared to retreat, accepting the inspection results. He made no mention of his previous demand to review of South Congregation’s property tax exemption. If the Council’s order stands, action the church’s tax status is probably dead.

While the inspection was on legal terra firma, attacking South Congregational’s tax status would not have been.

“To say this church is less charitable than it was before it took in this woman and her family is absurd,” Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton said.

Some councilors had expressed opposition to the order before Monday, but that melted away with an amendment. Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea, concerned the order could penalize city employees doing their jobs, proposed simpler language.

The amended ordinance says simply that the city could not interfere with South Congregation’s, or any house of worship’s, provision of sanctuary as part of its religious exercise.

The order passed unanimously. Thus, were Sarno to veto, there are more than enough votes to override. The mayor could sign it or let it become law without his signature.

Full details on the order will be in WMassP&I’s report on Monday’s Council meeting.