Christian leaders are condemning Attorney General Jeff Sessions for quoting the Bible to justify separating families at the border, saying he misinterpreted scripture.
Sessions pointed to a passage from the New Testament during a speech Thursday to argue that all people who break the law are subject to prosecution.
"I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order," he told law enforcement officers in Louisiana.
But James J. Martin, a Jesuit priest and secretariat of communications for the Vatican, disagreed on Twitter with the interpretation.
"It is not biblical to enforce unjust laws," Martin wrote. "Do not use the Bible to justify sin."
Other clergy noted the passage he cited has been misconstrued throughout history to excuse the actions of oppressive governments.
"This isn’t the first time that scripture has been used by people in power, by the state, to justify hatred and to hide hatred," said Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, senior minister at Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan, in an interview. "The KKK, the Nazi movement, the neo-nazis, the taking of land from First Nations and the enslavement of Africans were justified by scripture like that."
Lewis decried Sessions’ choice to quote a verse about submitting to government authority rather than other passages. "Love your neighbor as yourself” illustrates the need to support immigrants, not hurt them, the minister said.
That commandment is quoted in the New Testament a dozen times—even once in Romans 13.
Sessions aimed the comments at what he called his "church friends," two weeks after a coalition of evangelical leaders wrote a letter to Trump asking him to rethink his new "zero tolerance" immigration policy that results in children being removed from their parents' custody at the border.
"As evangelical Christians guided by the Bible, one of our core convictions is that God has established the family as the fundamental building block of society," wrote the Evangelical Immigration Table. "The state should separate families only in the rarest of instances."
Among those criticizing the administration's immigration policies is the Rev. Franklin Graham, a close ally of the president. He offered a strong rebuke of the policies in a Tuesday interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, the New York Times reported.
"I think it’s disgraceful, it’s terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit," he said.
When asked about Sessions' remarks in a Thursday afternoon briefing, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she was not aware of the comments.
She said, however, "I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible."
The bishops have called for House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republican lawmakers to reprimand Sessions.