Evangelicals say Ron DeSantis is threatening religious liberty with his support for a bill that criminalizes aid for immigrants

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  • A group of Florida evangelicals on Thursday criticized a bill that criminalizes the transport of migrants.

  • The bill makes it a felony to knowingly assist an undocumented immigrant.

  • Church leaders warned it could hinder their ability to preach the gospel.

A group of evangelicals on Thursday spoke against an effort by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Republicans to make it a felony to knowingly transport an undocumented immigrant, calling it a potentially dangerous infringement on religious liberty.

DeSantis, who is weighing a run for the presidency, has styled himself as a warrior for the Christian faith and a hardline opponent of illegal immigration. But on a conference call, Florida pastors said his support of a measure making its way through the Florida legislature threatens their ability to preach the gospel.

"As followers of Christ, we are living out our faith most clearly when we answer the call to care for those in need: widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor," Jody Ray, a pastor at Chets Creek Church in Jacksonville, said on the call. "Any law that would hinder our ability to carry out our calling to care for anyone in need would be a violation of our religious freedom."

At issue is a provision in the bill that would impose, per the legislative text: "criminal penalties for persons who knowingly and willfully violate, or who reasonably should know and who violate, certain provisions relating to the transporting into or within this state, or the concealing, harboring, or shielding from detection, or the attempt thereof, of individuals who entered the United States unlawfully and without inspection by the Federal Government."

Violators could be charged with a second-degree felony under the bill, which in Florida is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The bill is also opposed by the ACLU, with its Florida chapter noting that it could criminalize providing transport or shelter to people "who have lived in Florida for decades and have US-born children."

There are around 772,000 undocumented immigrants in Florida, according to the Migration Policy Institute, with roughly half having resided in the United States for more than a decade.

Gary Shultz Jr., a pastor at First Baptist Church of Tallahassee, said the bill, currently making its way through the Florida Senate, would force his congregants to choose between their faith and their freedom.

"As Christians, we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that includes immigrants that God brings into our state," he said, a duty that extends to providing not just spiritual support but material assistance. "If this bill were enacted as currently drafted, it would place Florida's Christians and churches in an untenable decision, having to decide between obeying biblical commands or facing criminal penalties for showing biblical compassion."

Another church leader suggested DeSantis and other Republicans were playing politics — but confusing evangelical support for the rule of law with backing for punitive measures targeting vulnerable immigrants.

"Elected officials seeking to appeal to evangelical voters are making an error, morally and strategically, by pursuing harsh, anti-immigrant legislation, especially when they go so far as to criminalize basic elements of church ministry in the process," Gabriel Salguero, pastor at The Gathering Place in Orlando and president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, told reporters. Salguero said is "praying" that DeSantis and his legislative allies "abandon this misguided bill."

It's not the first time religious leaders have clashed with DeSantis, who has styled himself a warrior for the Christian faith. Catholic leaders have also condemned his policies and rhetoric on immigration, with the Florida Catholic Conference, which represents the state's bishops, recently telling Insider that it opposes DeSantis' efforts to expand the death penalty.

A spokesperson for DeSantis did not return a request for comment.

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