Case of minister targeted for work at U.S. border goes to trial
The case of a clergywoman who says the U.S. government punished her for working with migrants is now in the hands of a federal judge.
Lawyers for the Rev. Kaji Douša argued her case during an Aug. 29–Sept. 1 trial in San Diego. Douša, a United Church of Christ minister, is pastor of New York City’s Park Avenue Christian Church. The congregation belongs to the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
U.S. District Court Judge Todd W. Robinson heard the case. His ruling is pending.
Legal right to minister to migrants
In July 2019, Douša sued the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Patrol. She said they had interfered with her legal right to provide spiritual support and pastoral services to migrants and refugees at the U.S-Mexico border.
Dousa said government agents subjected her to intelligence-gathering, detained and interrogated her, and revoked her travel privileges in January 2019. Those acts, she said, kept her from exercising her constitutional and civil rights to offer pastoral care.
Protect Democracy, which is representing her in the case along with the law firm Arnold & Porter, described in a public statement how Douša “used her ministry to advocate for migrants and refugees” on both sides of the border.
“Rev. Douša’s ministry has included praying for migrants and against suffering, offering the sacred rite of Christian marriage, and organizing prayerful vigils — some of which have been critical of U.S. immigration law and policy,” it said. “All of these activities are protected by federal law, even if they cast the government in a negative light or serve those whom the government disfavors.”
‘Responding to God’s call’
In that same statement, Douša said she ministered on the border in response to God’s call. For doing so, “my country of citizenship and birth – the United States – has decided to punish me,” she said. “After much prayer and deliberation, I brought this lawsuit against DHS to bring my country’s retaliation against my ministry to an end. I want this powerful government to stop wantonly attacking advocates, journalists and humanitarian workers for helping others.
“And I want this powerful government to stop their attempt to inhibit faith leaders, like me, from legitimately responding to God’s call – even if an administration in charge does not like who we serve.”
The case made news in March 2019 through a report by a San Diego television station. It cited leaked DHS documents. These revealed Douša had been named to a national watch list, “Operation Secure Line,” because of her ministry — and that her detention and interrogation were part of that program. According to the report, the operation targeted more than 50 people who aided, counseled, ministered to or documented the experiences of migrants.
‘Targeted and labeled’
UCC leaders spoke out in support of Douša in March 2019, saying she had been “unjustly targeted and labeled as an instigator” for her “ministry to those languishing at our southern border.” And in December of that year, the UCC’s General Synod and the National Council of Churches filed a friend-of-the-court brief in her case.
Regarding the current trial, the Rev. John Dorhauer, UCC general minister and president, said the Synod remains “in full support of and solidarity with her legal claims to challenge the actions taken by our government to deprive her of her pastoral authority and constrain her from fulfilling her pastoral duties.”
“We consider it a moral outrage that Rev. Dousa would be portrayed by our government as some sort of dissident, stripped of her credentials to both travel freely and practice her pastoral duties in full compliance with her conscience,” he said.
“I pray that the court will uphold my constitutional right to exercise my Christian faith free from surveillance, retaliation, or harm,” Douša said. “The U.S. Constitution means a great deal to me, and it should mean a great deal to the Department of Homeland Security, too. I want this lawsuit to help bring DHS’ actions into alignment with my – and our – Constitutional freedoms and religious protections.”
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