Commentary

New Secretary for Homeland Security has links to Lutherans and Minnesota

President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for Secretary of Homeland Security,
Janet Napolitano, came to the attention of Lutheran leaders in Minnesota
nearly a quarter century ago. The reason? An agenda that will be on
Napolitano’s plate in her new assignment — how government deals with
immigrants who may be here illegally.

Early in 1985 this writer, then director for Church in Society at The American
Lutheran Church’s national office in Minneapolis, received a phone call from
Jim Oines, pastor of Alzona Lutheran in Phoenix. Oines served a congregation
that ministered primarily to Latinos, among them a number of undocumented
refugees from conflicts in Central America. Jim said that Spanish-speaking
agents of Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS, now part of the
Homeland Security Department) were entering Alzona’s gatherings for
worship, Bible study, and other occasions, under pretense of having interest
in the purpose of such gatherings.

But in fact they had been discovered to be undercover informants, seeking
information to identify both undocumented people and church workers who
might be prosecuted for providing them sanctuary. It was learned that three
Presbyterian congregations in Arizona had experienced the same undercover
infiltration. All the affected congregations reported member loss and damage
to their ministries once the surreptitious behavior was revealed.

The concern was taken to the ALC presiding bishop, David Preus, and
together we consulted with ALC legal counsel, the Minneapolis firm of Faegre
& Benson. With support of that firm’s Duane Krohnke, we initially sought
relief with INS’s commissioner, who happened to be an ALC member, Alan
Nelson. A group of us met with him in Washington during the summer of
1985. Nelson told us the behavior of his agents was constitutional, necessary,
and would continue. Then we sought to arrange Congressional hearings on
the issue, but without success. Finally, we were advised to turn to the third
branch of government, the judiciary.

I remember heading to Phoenix in November 1985, for a meeting with the
law firm that had agreed to handle our case on a pro-bono basis, Lewis &
Roca. That’s when I first met Janet Napolitano, a youngish member of the
firm who had been admitted to the bar just two years earlier. She was named
to do most of the legal legwork for our case, reviewing the history of federal
court judgments on matters of government behavior in gatherings of
religious groups.

The two national denominations (ALC and Presbyterian Church USA) joined
the four Arizona congregations in a civil suit against the INS, claiming
damage to their ministries and jeopardy to some members by the secretive
behavior of government agents. We filed the suit in the Arizona district court
in January 1986. In conjunction with the filing, I was back in Phoenix to
appear at a press briefing, as did Janet Napolitano and colleagues from her
law firm.

It took five years to get a final resolution of the case: In February 1991 the
Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected the government’s
motion for reconsideration of a December 1990 ruling, which had given us a
modest victory. Judge Roger Strand, federal district judge in Arizona, had
ruled, for the first time in U.S. law, that the First Amendment does indeed
limit what government agents may do when conducting investigative work in
religious assemblies.

His judgment said “undercover informers [must] adhere scrupulously to the
scope of the invitation to participate [in religious activities] that may have
been extended to them.” We understood it to mean that activities to which
we’d objected, such as secret taping of conversations and recording of license
plate numbers in parking lots, were prohibited.

I recall that in explaining the lawsuit to our Lutheran constituency we used St.
Paul’s word to the Galatians: “Some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to
spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus …” (Gal. 2:4). We noted that,
while persons may join religious gatherings for any number of reasons, they
cannot legally do so in the United States as spies for the government if their
goal is to interfere with First Amendment freedoms of others.

It makes sense now that Napolitano is called to a top-level spot in the
federal administration where, one may expect, she’ll be a major player in the
still-needed immigration reform — once championed by another Arizonan, a
senator named John McCain.

Napolitano, a Methodist, attended a Roman Catholic university, Santa Clara in
California, where she majored in political science and was the school’s first
female valedictorian. She earned her law doctorate at the University of
Virginia and worked at Lewis & Roca for 10 years. While with that firm, she
was attorney for Anita Hill, who testified in the U.S. Senate that Supreme
Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her years earlier
when she was his subordinate at a federal agency. Napolitano was appointed
by President Clinton in 1993 as U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona. She
was elected state attorney general in 1998 and governor in 2002.

Shortly after becoming Arizona governor, Napolitano had another Minnesota
connection. The Sheila Wellstone Institute was being created by children and
friends of Sen. Paul and Sheila Wellstone after their deaths in 2002, to work
on concerns with domestic violence. For its inaugural conference at the
University of Minnesota in November 2003, the Institute invited Governor
Napolitano to deliver an address on domestic-abuse prevention.

And some Lutheran friends who had worked with Janet a couple decades
earlier were able to reconnect. Today, they’re happy to wish her well as she
enters a new setting for public service!

Charles P. Lutz, a Metro Lutheran editor emeritus and member of Lutheran
Church of Christ the Redeemer (ELCA), lives in southwest Minneapolis.