Twice before, the Southern Baptist Convention has called for the federal government to do something about illegal immigration.
But recent comments by Richard Land, a Southern Baptist leader and local pastor, at a recent evangelical conference on immigration mark one of the strongest calls yet from inside the denomination for fairness for undocumented immigrants.
"As Christians we confront the issue, 'What does the Bible say about what are my responsibilities as a citizen? What does the Bible say are my responsibilities to the stranger in our midst?'" Land said in an interview following the G92 South Immigration Conference at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.
G92 comes from the 92 references to "the stranger" -- the immigrant -- in the Old Testament. Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and interim pastor at Red Bank Baptist Church, was the keynote speaker.
"There at least 12 million undocumented workers because they came here and found work and we've allowed them to stay here for many years, and it would be unfair and not right to all of the sudden say, 'We've changed the rules in the middle of the stream and you've got to go home,'" Land said. "We believe that they should have an opportunity to work their way through a probationary period to permanent legal status."
The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest evangelical denomination in the nation and among the most conservative. There are questions about how much weight the convention has on the immigration debate, but Land contends that its power shouldn't be discounted.
"When the largest Protestant denomination comes out to say we've got to find a pathway to legal status through penalties and probation, that's not insignificant," said Land, who was appointed twice by President George W. Bush to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Bruce Gourley, executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, said the convention can definitely carry some weight. The society is a national, autonomous nonprofit devoted to telling the story of Baptists, according to its website.
"This is a political issue and the Southern Baptist leadership is an influential voice, to a degree, within the Republican sphere," he said.
'BEST GUIDE WE HAVE'
Southern Baptists have been leaning toward reform that includes a path to legal, permanent status as the number of unauthorized immigrants rises in both the South and the Southern Baptist membership, Land said.
"Unfortunately, the government hasn't been enforcing the law for many years, and we bear the responsibility for that," he said. "We have two signs at the border: One says 'No trespassing' and the other says 'Help wanted.'"
In 2006, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution urging the federal government to secure the borders and to enforce immigration laws, including penalizing employers who knowingly hire unauthorized workers. It encouraged churches to reach out to all immigrants and to encourage them "toward a path of legal status or citizenship."
A 2011 resolution went farther and included the word "undocumented." It asked the government to secure the borders and implement a "just and compassionate path to legal status with restitutionary measures." It excluded amnesty, a point of contention that divides many on immigration.
Resolutions are not binding, and Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies at Wake Forest School of Divinity in North Carolina, said they tend to reflect the minds of the people present when the vote is taken.
But Land said such resolutions are "the best guide we have of where the convention is on a particular issue at a particular time."
Despite the resolutions and the conferences, Southern Baptists remain divided on the issue of unauthorized immigrants.
"I have found that, on this issue, Southern Baptists are more split generationally than in any other direction," said Land. "The older you are, the more hesitant you are about the issue; the younger you are, the more you embrace it."
Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, said the Southern Baptist Convention hasn't taken a bold approach on issues of fairness concerning immigration, especially at the state level.
Georgia and Alabama are among states whose immigration-enforcement laws mirror Arizona's 2010 law that, among other things, requires police to ask about the legal status of people stopped for other reasons. The laws make it a crime to harbor or transport illegal immigrants.
Last year, leaders of the Episcopalian, Methodist and Roman Catholic churches sued Alabama on the grounds that its law "makes it a crime to follow God's command to be Good Samaritans," according to news reports.
"Speaking generically for comprehensive immigration reform is far easier than speaking courageously against Southern Baptist leaders in Alabama and Georgia who take very hostile anti-immigration positions, making them the law of their states," Parham said.
Southern Baptist leaders have become more vocal about immigration as the denomination's ethnic membership has risen.
There are about a half-million Hispanic Southern Baptists, and about 40 percent of them are unauthorized residents, according to Land.
But overall membership fell from almost 20 million in 2000 to about 16 million in 2010.
"The one factor, more than any other, that has prevented [the Southern Baptist Convention] as a national denomination from declining more than it has is the growth in ethnic memberships, African-Americans, Asians in some parts of the country, but especially Latinos," said Gourley, with the Baptist History and Heritage Society. "Without the ethnic growth, the decline of the church as a whole would be very stark."
The convention is set to elect its first black president this summer.
Land sees the possibility of "serious attempts of bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform" after the national presidential election in November.
But Parham said Southern Baptist churches are autonomous and independent.
"Southern Baptist Convention is not like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where bishops can speak with one voice and authority to a particular tradition," he said.
"That's why it's important for their leaders to speak with their churches and avoid feeding these negative narratives about the undocumented, such as they don't pay taxes, they don't want to learn English.
"I think the way we create constructive social change on the immigration reform debate is through moral education in churches," he added.