Springfield City Council votes to protect religious freedom of sanctuary church

The Springfield City Council voted unanimously Monday night to bar city officials from “interfering with the religious freedoms” of churches and other places of worship, a move meant to protect a local church that is sheltering a Peruvian immigrant from deportation.

In a packed City Hall chamber, several councilors evoked Martin Luther King Jr. and quoted Bible passages in voicing support for the measure. Timothy Ryan, among the sponsors of the resolution, said churches that provide sanctuary to unauthorized immigrants are “fulfilling their religious mission.”

“It’s so fundamental, and what they have done by coming together in providing sanctuary for this unfortunate young lady is 100 percent within their religious views, within their religious mission.”


Gisella Collazo and her two children have taken refuge inside the South Congregational Church for more than two weeks. The city's mayor, Domenic Sarno, has said officials would “not stand for harboring and protecting” immigrants facing deportation and is seeking to strip the church of its tax-exempt status.

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Sarno is the only official in Massachusetts to challenge a church providing sanctuary, and city councilors sharply criticized his stance.

“We’re really here because of the executive branch’s overreach in this subject," said Councilor Michael A. Fenton. “No mayor passes any edict telling any church what to do, particularly as it relates to sanctuary.”

Fenton called on other councilors to “put pressure on [Sarno’s] administration to expressly walk back that statement about their tax status.”

“It does raise a variety of issues, not the least of which is separation of church and state,” he said.


A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said Sarno had no comment on the vote “at this time.”

Collazo emigrated from Peru in 2001 and married a US citizen four years later. Her children were born in the United States. In a January check-in with immigration officials, she was told to return with a ticket to Peru on March 26. Instead, she took sanctuary at the church.

Councilor Jesse Lederman said the measure makes it clear that the city cannot use its resources to “carry out actions that are politically motivated.”

“We have the hindsight of looking back on history and seeing the mistakes that governments made, the mistakes that man made,” Lederman said.

“Take a stand because people will be looking back on this day and we want to be on the right side of history.”

Akilah Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Aimee Ortiz can be reached at Follow her on twitter @aimee_ortiz.