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Security irks civil rights groups

Cities nationwide are waging a campaign against anti-terror laws they consider threatening to civil rights.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | January 16, 2003

"Faith-based groups always have an opportunity to call into question political and civil authority."

—Ralph Quellhorst

Cities nationwide are waging a campaign against anti-terror laws they consider threatening to civil rights. Some 22 city councils across the nation have approved resolutions criticizing the Homeland Security Act, and about 70 others have resolutions pending.

The wording of such resolutions varies widely, from simply urging law enforcement officials to be mindful of people's civil rights, to more specific phrases focused on protecting those viewed as especially vulnerable.

One resolution passed by city officials in Flagstaff, Ariz. simply "reaffirms" that city's commitment to civil rights, while a more specific resolution passed by the city council in Takoma Park, Md., requires "all local law enforcement personnel refrain from participating in the enforcement of federal immigration laws."

And while some groups oppose specific tenets of the law, others take issue with the general tone domestic security has taken on.

A recent report by the national group Human Rights Watch charges that the new U.S. government tendency is to see human rights “mainly as an obstacle'' to the war on terrorism.

"Washington's tendency to ignore human rights in fighting terrorism is not only disturbing in its own right; it is dangerously counter-productive,'' the report said. ''The smoldering resentment it breeds risks generating terrorist recruits, puts off potential anti-terrorism allies, and weakens efforts to curb terrorist atrocities.''

Human Rights Watch also criticized several other countries for using the war on terrorism as a front to crack down on dissidents.

Faith-based groups are also voicing concern over civil rights lost in the name of the war on terror.

In a letter to Congress and Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Washington, D.C. religious community urged the government to refrain from eroding the rights of individuals as it protects the country as a whole.

"We are concerned that provisions of the anti-terrorism law (PL

197-56) and a number of new regulations issued by the Executive Branch reduce the due process protections for all who reside in the United States, including undocumented aliens, lawful immigrants, and citizens. Under these new powers, immigrants may be detained indefinitely while a mysterious process takes place within the Justice Department to "clear" them of accusations – which they have no opportunity to confront – that they are somehow connected to terrorism," the letter stated.

Among signers of the letter: American Baptist Churches USA, Council on Islamic Relations, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Mennonite Central Committee, Presbyterian Church USA, Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, and the United Church of Christ.

Vocal critics of current homeland security laws take certain risks themselves: being branded as unpatriotic, or being listed as potential terrorists themselves on national or local law enforcement lists.

But many of these critics are only trying to improve a system they believe in, said Ralph Quellhorst of the United Church of Christ's national disaster ministries network. "Faith-based groups always have an opportunity to call into question political and civil authority," he said. "Sometimes it can mean criticizing your own country. In a sense, that is supporting your government and local police. That's the reason we're speaking out. You're not trying to overthrown things, you're trying to make things better."

Will the sea of statements and vocal criticism change anything? Justice Department officials said such resolutions are little more than symbolic gestures. The FBI and other federal agencies won't change the way they conduct investigations, said Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo.

"We don't believe that any of these resolutions will have any effect on our ability to work with local law enforcement in fighting terrorism," he said. "The Patriot Act is the law of the land. It was passed overwhelmingly by a broad majority of bipartisan congressmen. Everything we do is in accordance with the Constitution."

But the constitutionality of new security-related laws is precisely what's being debated, said Robert Herr, co-director of the Mennonite Central Committee's peace office. "When you live in a country like the U.S., where national interest and world responsibilities often get confused, a great deal more care is required when thinking about how to support forces for safety and security," he said.

The Homeland Security Act, among other things, allows authorities to indefinitely detain suspected terrorists; covertly monitor political groups; seize library records; and tap phone and Internet connections.

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