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Another Stain on America’s Moral Conscience

The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld President Donald Trump’s travel ban in a 5-4 vote. It restricts entry of citizens from seven countries to varying degrees: Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Venezuela. Most of these countries are Muslim majority nations.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the dissent wrote: “The majority here completely sets aside the President’s charged statements about Muslims as irrelevant. That holding erodes the foundational principles of religious tolerance that the court elsewhere has so emphatically protected, and it tells members of minority religions in our country ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.’” She also compared the opinion to a 1944 decision in which the court blessed the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

"It tells members of minority religions in our country that they are outsiders."

Though the United States has welcomed many refugees, there have been times when the U.S. government has kept people of a particular religious or ethnic group out of our country. That step has been taken even though the Constitution guarantees that there should be no impediments to people worshipping as they please and the Bible is clear that those people who are not from here should be welcomed.

As Shoulder to Shoulder, a national organization where I serve as a member of its executive committee, said, the Supreme Court upheld the “de facto Muslim ban that targets our Muslim neighbors on the basis of their religious affiliation. As we have said time and time again, targeting people based on their faith is not in keeping with the American ideals that we as American faith communities seek to uphold and advance. Today’s ruling will long be a stain on our country’s moral conscience, joining the woeful ranks of the Korematsu and Dred Scott rulings. This decision continues the abhorrent impacts that the Ban has already had on individuals, families, and communities.”

Sadly, our country has prohibited people of faith from entering the nation before.

Sadly, our country has prohibited people of faith from entering the nation before. The German ocean liner SS St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, to Cuba on May 13, 1939. The vessel, under the command of Capt. Gustav Schroeder, was carrying 937 passengers, most of them Jewish refugees seeking asylum from the Nazis’ oppressive treatment of Jews and others in Germany. Many of the Jewish refugees were frightened greatly by Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when Jewish store windows had been broken in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Schroeder, a German who wasn’t Jewish, went to great lengths to ensure his passengers were treated with dignity and to protect them from the Nazis.

The ship dropped anchor on May 27 at the far end of the Havana harbor but was denied entry to the usual docking areas. The Cuban government, headed by President Federico Laredo Bru, refused to accept the foreign refugees. Although passengers had purchased legal visas, they could not enter Cuba either as tourists (laws related to tourist visas had recently been changed) or as refugees seeking political asylum.

The St. Louis and its remaining 907 Jewish refugees headed toward the United States.

Prohibited from landing in Cuba, the St. Louis and its remaining 907 Jewish refugees headed toward the United States. Schroeder circled off the coast of Florida, hoping for permission to enter the country. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, refused to accept them.

After the St. Louis was turned away from the United States, a group of academics and clergy in Canada tried to persuade Canada’s prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to provide sanctuary to the ship’s passengers, as it was only two days from Halifax, Nova Scotia. But Canada also refused to allow the Jews to land.

The situation deteriorated as Schroeder negotiated and schemed to find them safe haven in Europe. At one point, he formulated a plan to wreck the ship on the British coast to force the passengers to be taken in as refugees. He refused to return the ship to Germany until all the passengers had been given entry to some other country. U.S. officials worked with Britain and European nations to find them refuge in Europe. The ship returned to Europe, docking at Antwerp, Belgium, on June 17, 1939, with 907 passengers.

It has been estimated that of the original refugees, 227 people were murdered by the Nazis.

The United Kingdom and several other European nations agreed to take 288 of the refugees. Without any passengers, the ship returned to Hamburg. The following year, after the Nazis invaded Belgium, France and the Netherlands in May 1940, all the Jews in those countries were placed at greatly increased risk, including the recent refugees. It has been estimated that of the original refugees, 227 people were murdered by the Nazis.

So, here we go again.

[Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash]

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