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SPRINGFIELD -- City councilors have proposed an order that would prevent city employees from taking any action to stop South Congregational Church from providing sanctuary for a Peruvian woman facing of deportation.
At a press conference on Thursday, six city councilors said they back the order. It is intended to block Mayor Domenic J. Sarno's crackdown on the church, which has provided housing and basic needs to Gisella Collazo and her two children since Monday.
"No public dollars shall be allocated for the purpose of interfering with the religious freedoms of South Church in accordance to our Constitution," the order states in part.
The proposed order will be considered by the full council at a special meeting called by council President Orlando Ramos at 4:30 p.m. April 3 at City Hall.
Sarno has sharply criticized the sanctuary, and has called on several city departments to inspect the church on Maple Street, identify any housing code violations, and begin the process of revoking the church's exemption from property taxes.
The council states within the proposed order that "no member of the City of Springfield including all employees and agents shall take any step, measure or act to interfere with, restrain, intimidate or prevent South Church and the Springfield Interfaith Coalition in its mission of providing sanctuary to Gisella Collazo or any other individual."
Sarno said there is no change in his own order.
"My administration will continue to move forward to make sure these laws are adhered to -- our city employees and officials are only doing their jobs, which is what our taxpayers expect," Sarno said in a statement.
Councilor Timothy Ryan was the lead sponsor of the order, and was joined by Councilors Jesse Lederman, Adam Gomez, Timothy Allen, Michael Fenton and Ramos.
Ryan said the sanctuary effort is "intrinsically part" of the church's mission and part of religious freedom.
As elected officials, the City Council has "an obligation to respond and reflect that this is part of their religious mission and not to try to interfere, not try to intimidate these churches, these clergy people in the performance of their religious duties," Ryan said.
Under city charter, Sarno is the chief executive and the council is the legislative body of the city. Councilors did not say what would happen if the order is rejected by Sarno, saying it would be addressed at that time.
Lederman said the church is offering sanctuary to a mother who is a 17-year resident of the United State, has no criminal record, and is attempting to legally resolve her immigration status and remain with her family.
"South Congregational Church is continuing a long tradition of religious institutions in our United States going beyond politics to stand up for what is truly just and morally right," Lederman said.
Ramos said the state and U.S. constitutions protect "everyone's freedom of religion and I believe that the words and the actions that have been made against South Congregational Church are intended to interfere with that religious practice and I believe that that is unjust, unfair and constitutional."
Ramos said he hopes the council's action sends a very clear message to the mayor that his approach "will not be tolerated, and that we here in the city of Springfield are a welcoming city."
Sarno said he fully believes in and supports legal immigration.
"Again, or city's stance is based on the law and local, state and federal regulations and statutes on public health, safety, housing and property tax assessment," Sarno said.
He said his administration has a fiduciary responsibility not to jeopardize potentially millions of dollars in federal funding by becoming a sanctuary city. President Donald Trump has threatened to cut federal funding for cities that do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts.
Some councilors and representatives of the immigration sanctuary coalition said there is no validity to the mayor's stated concern of losing millions of dollars. Setting up a church sanctuary is not the same as formally declaring Springfield a sanctuary city, a coalition representative said.
On Wednesday, the Rev. Tom Gerstenlauer of South Congregational Church said he was afraid for Sarno's soul in response to the mayor's words and actions regarding the sanctuary.
"To say that I am appalled by the behavior of the mayor of Springfield regarding the sanctuary provisions of our church would be inaccurate," Gerstenlauer said. "I am afraid. I am afraid of the message his words and actions delivers to the citizens of this city. I am afraid of the effect that his representation of elected government has on the honest members of the immigrant community in our midst. And I am afraid for the soul of our mayor as well."