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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s recent legal assault on El Paso’s Annunciation House should set off alarm bells across Texas’ religious community. He claims, absurdly, without proof that the Catholic non-profit organization is illegally “smuggling” undocumented immigrants. This is because Annunciation House provides immigrants with food, shelter and advice on how to legally apply for asylum to immigrants regardless of their legal status.

An impressive cadre of committed volunteers who staff Annunciation House put into practice their Christian belief and message of Jesus, attending to the severe physical needs of migrants coming into the country without regard to their status, just as Jesus attended to people without regard to their status. Their firm faith in that message and rigorous application of the Gospel is inspiring and challenging to the rest of us.

I worked with Annunciation House staff during my earlier career with the Texas Civil Rights Project, and their dedication is moving and, in many respects, shames us by living a life that many of us would not do. Their work since 1978 has been awesome, assisting thousands of hungry and shelterless families and individuals.

Paxton’s attempt to shut down Annunciation House is a transparent political operation. This is an attorney general who has ferociously asserted the religious rights of organizations and churches in other contexts to his liking. But in this he has a different mind. Apparently, he feels entitled to decide which religious freedom the state will respect and which it will not. Paxton’s kind of arbitrary discretion is the end of religious freedom. It’s the death knell of the separation of church and state.

Ruben Garcia, center right, founder and director of Annunciation House, a network of migrants shelters in El Paso, Texas, speaks during a news conference accompanied by local representatives and members of the border community, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. Garcia is reacting to the lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that claims the Annunciation House “appears to be engaged in the business of human smuggling” and is threatening to terminate the nonprofit’s right to operate in Texas. (Andres Leighton/AP Photo)

Paxton wants the names of every individual whom Annunciation House has assisted. No church would ever agree to that. Trying to force a breach of religious confidentiality is chilling. Paxton‘s goal is sheerly political, and it’s a gravely dangerous ploy in terms of religious freedom. Who’s next in Paxton’s sights?

What is the point of depriving people of food and shelter? What is the point of intimidating religious organizations that are doing their best to live out their beliefs? There is no point, period, other than politics of it and keeping his name on the marquee.

There’s also a practical part to this. El Paso is struggling to meet the reality of the influx of migrants coming across the border, and Annunciation House is assisting with that. As director Rubén García notes, Annunciation House helps serve local businesses, the city, and immigration officials by keeping people off the streets and giving them shelter while they pass through the community.

No matter one’s view of the immigration situation, no person’s view, and no Christian’s view, can be to deprive fellow human beings (“fellow children of God,” in religious language) of food, shelter and essential necessities.

The Gospel poignantly recounts Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, affirming that his message of healing and salvation is for all people, not just one nation. Jesus also tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, that everyone’s duty is to attend to those in need, regardless of the politics of the situation.

One cannot find in the Gospel a command to be a political agent of the state. In fact, a fair reading of the Gospel is the opposite — not to be such an agent, to apply the love of God in all situations to all people. Religious belief is not to be tailored to the whim and desire of those in political power or to buttress their agenda.

All people of faith and all those who oppose intertwining religion and politics should rally against Paxton’s attack on Annunciation House.

We can hope for Paxton’s conversion in this instance. More importantly, however, recognizing the realities of the situation and the power of the state. We need to unite and push back against this dangerous precedent. This is a perilous encroachment on people’s religious beliefs and mission.

James C. Harrington of Austin is the founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project.

James C. Harrington