The evening of Sept. 15 was a quiet Friday night for Rabbi Randy Fleisher, a leader of the Central Reform Congregation, the only synagogue within St. Louis city limits. Shabbat services were winding down, and two congregants were celebrating the one-year anniversary of their religious conversion with cake, hummus, cheese and crackers. But Central Reform was planning to stay open unusually late. And across the street, the lights of the First Unitarian Church of St. Louis stayed on too.
Earlier that day, a judge had handed down a controversial verdict acquitting Jason Stockley, a white former police officer, of murder. In 2011, Stockley fatally shot Anthony Lamar Smith, a black driver. Police reform activists had promised demonstrations if Stockley was acquitted, and Central Reform and First Unitarian were prepared to welcome anyone peacefully seeking sanctuary.
As people ate, someone noticed a large march going past. Congregants went outside to wave at hundreds of protesters sweeping past the synagogue. A few activists stepped inside to say hello or get a glass of water. The march was peaceful. But not long after, someone damaged the nearby home of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson (D). “Everyone kind of dispersed wildly, realizing that this was not the same demonstration they wanted to be a part of,” said Shira Berkowitz, who participated in the protest and serves as the director of advocacy and communications at the synagogue.
Riot police arrested protesters and used tear gas to dispel crowds. Soon, dozens of demonstrators poured through the synagogue’s door, seeking refuge.
In 2014, the synagogue opened its doors all night to protesters after a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. But Ferguson, where those demonstrations took place, is miles away from St. Louis proper, and few protesters actually came to the synagogue that year. Friday was different: This time, a couple hundred activists spent time in the synagogue, Fleisher said.
Fleisher said he spoke to an officer who told him police weren’t going to go after people in the building. Some time later, an officer came to the door and noted that anybody who was in the synagogue could stay there ― but any protester who left would do so at their own risk.
“Because the order to disperse was already given, anyone who exited the space was subject to arrest if they chose not to disperse from the streets,” Schron Jackson, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis police department, told HuffPost in an email. “The [Central Reform Congregation] was aware of this.”
Across the street, other protesters took refuge in the First Unitarian Church. On church property outside, police threatened to arrest or pepper-spray people who didn’t go inside the building, said Lynn Hunt, a religious educator with the church. Police never attempted to go inside, she said. She and Rev. Gary James said they saw one arrest on church property. James told an officer that the police did not have the authority to make arrests of people gathered peacefully there.
“I’m not sure if arrests were made on the Church/Congregation property, as we have multiple arrests at that intersection,” said Jackson, the police spokeswoman.
In the U.S., people can’t legally avoid arrest by entering a place of worship. But the relationship between the state and religious sanctuaries is complicated and has been for many centuries. The ancient Greeks and Romans allowed people accused of crimes to seek asylum in sanctuary zones, and Christian sanctuaries subsequently spread in Europe. In England, “civil authorities would cut off food supplies to the church, storm it or set it on fire to force the issue,” according to a 2012 Washington City Paper column on a religious sanctuary. (In England, the church’s right to grant sanctuary was abolished around 1624.)
U.S. churches served as safe havens on the Underground Railroad and later played an important role for protesters during the civil rights movement. The Ku Klux Klan beat parishioners at Mount Zion AME Church in Mississippi in 1964, looking for civil rights activist Michael Schwerner, then burned down the church. In the 1980s, the mother of Tawana Brawley — a teenager who, a grand jury concluded, made false rape allegations — took sanctuary in Baptist churches to avoid testifying. At the time, Rev. Al Sharpton dared authorities to arrest Brawley’s mother. “Show the nation the moral beast you are and come through these doors,” he said.
Today, hundreds of churches have declared themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants. There is no law requiring the federal government to respect those declarations ― but it generally does so. “As a purely legal matter... the immigration agency can if it wants to, come into a church to arrest someone,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell University. But with some exceptions, its Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s policy not to focus on “sensitive locations” like “places of worship” in order to “enhance the public understanding and trust,” according to ICE’s website. (There is a concern, however, that the Trump administration is testing the boundaries of this policy.)
“In my experience, it would be an individual policy by the department, and they would have to figure out based on local custom and wishes how they dealt with that,” said Dick Odenthal, a retired captain from the Los Angeles Sheriff Department who has experience in more than 100 riots. In his own career in L.A. County, Odenthal said, the question “never came up.”
The St. Louis police department does not have a policy on arrests in places of worship, Jackson said.
From a practical standpoint, “if the police just wanted to break up what they viewed as a riot, sheltering in the church accomplishes that,” said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia and an expert on religious liberty. “They are no longer rioting.”
Charges could always be filed later, Odenthal pointed out.
In St. Louis, congregants had to stay in the synagogue on Friday until around midnight, when police cleared the area. But people in both the church and the synagogue described the atmosphere as peaceful. People went into the sanctuary space and “laid on the floor, sat in chairs, just hung out or ate a lot of food,” said Berkowitz, who participated in the protest.
Later, there were reports that white nationalists had started an anti-Semitic hashtag, #GasTheSynagogue, in response to the incident. Fleisher said it was his understanding that the hashtag only appeared in a handful of tweets. A Twitter spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
“To serve as a shelter of peace often means [doing so] in times of distress in the city,” Berkowitz said. “So we are trying to open our doors any opportunity that we have, to be that kind of protection to people who need it.”