Can You Really Seek Sanctuary in a Church?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

An agitated person runs screaming into a church yelling “Sanctuary!” at the top of their lungs. They are evading the law for either unjust or just reasons, and for a long time, the ability to claim this safe harbor was recognized by most countries. Of course as soon as a person left a church, safe harboring ended, and all bets were off.

King's College Chapel at the University of Cambridge.
King's College Chapel at the University of Cambridge.

Today, there are a few churches that may offer protection from certain laws on a limited basis. This largely depends on the church, the country, and a variety of other factors. In most cases, a priest, minister or bishop has to give sanctuary to the seeker and it can be denied.

King James I made it illegal to seek sanctuary in a church in England.
King James I made it illegal to seek sanctuary in a church in England.

In England, King James I specifically made seeking sanctuary illegal, but given his status as head of church, Anglican, and state, he was well in his rights to do so. It’s a little unclear in countries where separation of church and state are valued. For instance, in recent times, some conscientious objectors, like soldiers who didn’t want to got to war in Iraq and illegal immigrants who face deportation have sought help or harboring form churches and been given it. The First United Method Church in Tacoma, Washington gave refuge to such an officer, and made a blanket offer to others in the military service who conscientiously objected to the war in Iraq, but it was given on a limited basis only for a few nights.

For a long time, individuals had the right to claim sanctuary in a church.
For a long time, individuals had the right to claim sanctuary in a church.

It is not necessarily legal to offer sanctuary and in actuality is in specific defiance of the law in the US. There have been recent changes to this law that allow for ministers who offer sanctuary to not be prosecuted. Sometimes, in spite of the law, a person in violation of the law is given a brief refuge in a church and is not apprehended. This largely depends on the type of crime committed. A violent felon, should he or she be granted safe harbor in a church, is likely to be arrested in a church because of the danger posed to the community.

A violent felon may be arrested in a church even if they are attempting to seek sanctuary.
A violent felon may be arrested in a church even if they are attempting to seek sanctuary.

While seeking a safe place in a church is often associated with Catholicism, Roman Catholics, since 1983, do not necessarily offer it and may not defend it. Also, in many churches of many denominations it may be hard to find an open church since many are locked when they aren't in use in order to prevent vandalism and theft. Further, the Catholics didn’t invent sanctuary, as many might think due to Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Much older religions also may have offered brief stays to people in temples or places of worship. It’s an older idea than Christianity, but as with modern times, it may not always be honored. Most often today, you’ll find the idea of sanctuary as offered to people who are in danger of being deported.

This was the case with Elvira Arellano, who sought sanctuary with a Methodist Church in the US in 2006. She was deported in July of 2007, leaving behind her seven year old son who, having been born in the US, is a US citizen. There are unfortunately many cases where immigration laws in the US have led to situations of parents being deported while children remain behind, and this is why some churches have taken a hard line on offering a temporary place to stay to parents. As soon as they leave the church, though, any religious laws a state might respect, even if they are informal, are void, and people may be quickly arrested.

In some cases, a priest will give sanctuary to the seeker.
In some cases, a priest will give sanctuary to the seeker.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


Why does this article only address illegal immigrants? It didn't answer the question of real criminality. Now I know, people are innocent until proven guilty by a court of law, but what if a man commits murder (and I'll just add that there were witnesses that saw him do it) and he runs off to a church and the police go in to get him to take him in so he can receive due process of the law. Do the police have the right to remove this murderer from the church? Or can he avoid prosecution as long as he remains on church property? And if so, does he have to be granted sanctuary by the church or is it automatic just by default of being on the property?


They were called cities of refuge. "The cities were Kedesh, Shechem, Hebron, Bezer, Romath, and Golan" (Joshua 20:7-8).


"There are unfortunately many cases where immigration laws in the US have led to situations of parents being deported while children remain behind...."

No, the law is not responsible for families being separated. That is a choice made by the parents who voluntarily abandon their children in the hope of gaming the system. Repeal birthright citizenship, pass mandatory E-verify, and send anyone caught here illegally back to where they belong.

There is no legal right to sanctuary in the US and those churches caught violating our immigration laws should lose their tax-exempt status and be prosecuted for aiding and abetting.


This issue -- at least in Western culture as it relates to Christianity in its various permutations -- goes to the independent status of the Church versus secular authority.

The Church owned land that was for all intents and purposes independent of the kingdom in which it was located. Likewise, the clerics -- and some lay people -- were not subject to secular law, but rather to ecclesiastical law. An individual could seek sanctuary on Church property and would be effectively outside the jurisdiction of the secular authority. Intertwined with this legal relationship was the cultural relationship wherein a particular secular authority might refrain from doing something to displease the Church in light of the potential spiritual consequences of proceeding otherwise.

The issue is not a religious one per se, but rather one of legal differences between the Church and its holdings and the secular authorities and their holdings. I cannot say categorically that other cultures and religions did not have sanctuary customs or the equivalent, but for Western civilization the practice developed as stated.

In the modern era, the move toward separation of Church and State and the emergence of the widespread acceptance of the supremacy of the State over other institutions has eroded the concept of sanctuary. Contemporaneous and quite probably causal in this regard is the erosion of Church power and prestige. The Church(s) of today lack the military, economic and political clout to contend with secular governments except in arenas wherein the secular authorities permit such contention.


@anon339652: I can't really say for a certainty that the Bible itself mentions sanctuary. A lot of things we associate with Christianity, like the church providing protection or sanctuary for outsiders, didn't really start happening until hundreds of years after Christ. Most of the people mentioned in the Bible didn't even own a copy of it. The early Catholic church became a powerful institution for both religious and political people, so the idea of seeking protection from the secular government made more sense back then. The church councils decided that a church building or grounds represented God's territory on Earth, so anyone seeking protection from worldly oppression should be allowed to stay on it.

However, modern churches are treated more like non-profit organizations by most governments. Yes, they are exempt from paying a lot of government taxes and other laws, but they are still located within the boundaries of local governments. A criminal running from the local police cannot automatically call out for sanctuary in a modern church. It was never designed to protect every single lawbreaker who manages to get inside the building.

Church leaders have the right to report trespassers to the police, especially if they appear to pose a threat. Some ministers may still decide to provide humanitarian aid to someone who demonstrates a need, but they aren't obligated by God or the universal church to provide legal sanctuary to anyone.


Where, specifically, in the bible are the scriptures referring to sanctuary? We were at a church claiming sanctuary from the government and their illicit stalking tactics and we were arrested for doing nothing wrong.


Does this informal rule only apply to Christian churches or can one claim "sanctuary" in a Buddhist temple or a Mosque? I personally think it is ridiculous that any religious group could hold any power of the government apprehending a wrongdoer.


In the US, allowing yourself to be arrested, maintaining silence except to insist on your right to a lawyer, and hoping that the lawyer can persuade a judge that it is safe for you to be allowed release upon posting bond (bailed out) is, in effect, a form of sanctuary.

This is a layman's opinion, not legal advice.


Not in new Testament practice, in such an outward way. There was a 'city of refuge' in Numbers 35 however where one could run if guilty of manslaughter, and they would be safe there.

It is a type of Christ today, how repentant sinners can flee to Him in our spirit and take refuge from God's condemnation and the accusation that comes from the Devil and from our conscience. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).


Is claiming sanctuary in a temple or a church actually Biblical? Are there any Scriptures that teach this?

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