Court documents show pastor targeted by government for officiating at immigrant weddings
Religion News Service | 1/17/2020, 6 a.m.
New documents unearthed in an ongoing federal lawsuit indicate the U.S. government surveilled and investigated a New York pastor and immigrant rights activist over allegations that she committed marriage fraud by officiating immigrant weddings along the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the cleric said she did nothing wrong and is accusing the federal government of violating her religious freedom by targeting her.
“My faith and belief in ministering to the vulnerable brought me to the border,” the Rev. Kaji Douša, senior pas- tor of Park Avenue Christian Church in New York, told Religion News Service in a statement. “It’s now undeniably clear the government targeted me for this very calling, based on the language contained in its own documents. This evidence reinforces the need for me to fight this injustice — to stand up for my First Amendment rights and the dignity of the people I serve.”
The documents, which RNS has seen, were uncovered as part of a lawsuit filed against the federal government in July. Rev. Douša, who regularly ap- pears on MSNBC to comment on immigration issues, claims government officials infringed on her religious liberty in Janu- ary 2019 when they detained and surveilled her after she began ministering to Central American asylum-seekers in the migrant caravan along the southern U.S. border.
The pastor first learned the scope of the government’s surveillance in March, when a San Diego NBC affiliate published leaked U.S. Depart- ment of Homeland Security documents believed to be part of an “Operation Secure Line” program overseen by the U.S. government to track and scru- tinize immigrant rights activ- ists. Among those listed in the documents was Rev. Douša, whose face was crossed out with a yellow “X” to indicate that her SENTRI pass — a system that allows for expedited screening along the Southwest U.S.-Mexico border — had been revoked.
In a brief filed on Dec. 20, Rev. Douša’s lawyers point to documents accrued through the legal discovery process showing the government was investigating the pastor because it suspected her of potentially committing marriage fraud, namely by officiating the wed- dings of immigrants camping out on the Mexico side of the border as part of the migrant caravan.
“Identified as perform- ing marriage ceremonies in Tijuana,” the Border Patrol Intelligence Unit document states.
According to a separate declaration from Rev. Douša, the pastor did perform “approximately 17 marriages” for asylum seekers with the help of other clergy who were participating in a 40-day “Sanctuary Caravan” designed to aid immigrants at the border.
But Rev. Douša notes that marriages were not an attempt to violate U.S. law, arguing she made “no representations regarding the legal impact our religious ceremonies would have in any application for asylum” and pointing to a document she helped create that encouraged clergy to “make sure the people understand it is a religious ceremony and certificate.”
The December brief contends the government targeted Rev. Douša for performing religious ministry to migrants, which is protected under the U.S. Constitution and the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act and is described as a “core part” of Rev. Douša’s faith.