More than 300 people of faith came to the Statehouse on Sunday to support a legal challenge to South Carolina's new, tougher immigration law.
Demonstrators sang the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome," recited from the poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty and prayed for U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, who will hear arguments today challenging the constitutionality of the law.
"God, while we might not be in Charleston, we thank you that you're already there," said the Rev. Robert China of Spring Hill AME Church in Gilbert.
The Rev. Canon Susan Heath, of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, prayed from the Book of Common Prayer that God's spirit would "move every human heart, and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear and hatreds cease. That our divisions being healed, we may live in peace and justice."
A variety of plaintiffs, including the U.S. Justice Department, are questioning the constitutionality of the law, saying immigration is a federal responsibility.
The law allows police in South Carolina to ask people about their immigration status after a traffic stop or arrest. It also requires police to call federal immigration officials if they suspect someone is in the country illegally.
Richland County Councilman Jim Manning said he was there to support the demonstrators. "I represent Decker Boulevard, Richland County's international corridor. It's just so important that we celebrate diversity, that we pray together and that we live together," he said.
One of the speakers, the Rev. Dr. Tim McClendon, superintendent of the Columbia District of the S.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church, said after the rally, "As United Methodists, we don't believe in any personal holiness without social holiness -- that God through Christ wants to transform us not only individually but the world in which we live. We're a community."
Speaking in Spanish, Guatemala native Betty Chavez told a reporter after the rally that she and her people only want the same opportunities that Gov. Nikki Haley's parents -- immigrants from India -- had.
The Rev. Carl Evans, former chairman of the University of South Carolina Department of Religious Studies, was the rally's moderator.
"We deliberately wanted this to be a gathering of people of faith rather than politicians," said Evans, president-elect of the S.C. Christian Action Council. "The purpose was to pray."
Major Christian denominations present were Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic and Episcopal. A rabbi and representative of the Buddhist Dharma Center also spoke.
At least half the crowd appeared to be of Hispanic origin. Some 10 million illegal immigrants -- no one knows the exact number -- are estimated to be in the U.S., many from Mexico and Central America. How to deal with them is one of the nation's most contentious issues.
Wrapping up the rally, Virginia Sanders, a self-described "child of the civil rights struggle," told the crowd the rally reminded her of bygone "struggles that we have had and fights that we done."
"I want to thank people of all faiths for bearing witness today against the mean-spirited South Carolina law that criminalizes strangers and breaks up families. This law as it is written is inhumane," Sanders said. "We must remember the words of Dr. (Martin Luther) King, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' "