(RNS) — A prominent Manhattan pastor has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that U.S. officials violated her religious freedom when she was put on a watchlist over her ministry to migrants at the border.
The Rev. Kaji Douša, senior pastor of Park Avenue Christian Church and longtime advocate for immigrants’ rights, was the only clergy member listed in a secret government database created to collect information on the caravan of Central American migrants that traveled through Mexico toward the U.S. border last fall.
Her lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection argues that placing her on the watchlist and surveilling her violated her First Amendment rights and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“I think that what ICE and CBP and DHS are doing is not legal,” Douša told Religion News Service “There is so much rhetoric about so-called illegal immigration, and I don’t understand why people who say ‘do it legally’ don’t apply those same standards to their own government.”
Working with the New Sanctuary Coalition, an immigrant advocacy organization, Douša participated in a 40-day “Sanctuary Caravan” of faith leaders in Tijuana, Mexico, late last year to provide pastoral services to hundreds of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. When she returned to the U.S. in January, federal immigration officials detained her for several hours and interrogated her about her work ministering to migrants at the border and in New York City.
“They interrogated her about her motives,” the complaint states. “They interrogated her about her associations. They revealed to Pastor Douša that they had collected detailed information about her and her pastoral work. And they revoked the access she had previously been granted to expedited border crossing.”
Under a program dubbed Operation Secure Line and revealed through leaked DHS documents obtained by San Diego’s NBC affiliate in March, the federal government targeted more than 50 journalists, lawyers and immigration advocates and subjected them to repeated questioning by border authorities.
The documents included Douša’s name and photo with a yellow “X” across her face, reportedly denoting that her Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection, or SENTRI, pass to expedite border crossings had been revoked, apparently due to her connection with the migrants.
ICE declined to comment on the allegations due to the pending litigation.
Douša, a United Church of Christ pastor, has spent years ministering to migrants, both at her Park Avenue church and previously as a pastor at the United Church of Christ of La Mesa, near the border in California.
More than 230 clergy members, including UCC’s top leadership and prominent faith leaders such as the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rabbi Joshua Stanton, have signed a letter supporting Douša.
“In this country, the government cannot decide to whom we may preach or with whom we may pray,” the letter reads. “We believe we should take a stand and say so together … Because, mark our words: If we let them come for some of us now, they will come for all of us in time. That we cannot abide.”
Douša argued that the agencies “significantly burdened” her free exercise of religion, which includes serving the “least of these,” per an excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew that introduces Douša’s complaint.
The lawsuit also alleges that the government has diminished her ministry by compromising her “covenant of confidentiality” with worshippers, who she said include immigrants as well as prominent and powerful Manhattanites.
“It’s very, very difficult for people to be able to have a conversation where they unburden their conscience and seek the path to redemption when they’re worried about whether or not there’s a microphone in the confessional,” Douša said. “I don’t know the extent of the government surveillance. I don’t want to make anybody more vulnerable.”
One of the women she had officiated a wedding for in Tijuana was questioned specifically about her connection with Douša when she presented herself for asylum, the lawsuit alleges.
“The U.S. government cannot retaliate against a member of the clergy because it disfavors the people she leads in prayer,” Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP, the law firm representing Douša along with Protect Democracy, said in a statement. “While this sort of authoritarian tactic might fly in other nations we revile as unjust, our Constitution and laws forbid it.”
“I’m not a criminal,” Douša said. “Nothing I’ve done is illegal. I don’t encourage anyone to do anything illegal. And I don’t think they could ever really allege that because there would be no evidence to support it.”
Instead, she said, the government “seems to want to make it as difficult as possible to know the truth about what’s happened at the border. And I see and witness what is happening at our border, and there’s very clear evidence that government does not like that.”
In a related case, federal prosecutors announced last week that they will pursue a retrial against border activist Scott Warren, a volunteer with the faith-based migrant advocacy group No More Deaths, who is facing felony charges and possible prison time for providing humanitarian aid to migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.