A federal judge has combined three separate lawsuits into one case aimed at challenging Alabama’s law cracking down on undocumented immigrants.

U. S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn ruled Wednesday she would consider all three lawsuits together and will hear arguments made in all three suits seeking to block implementation of the law on Sept. 1. She has scheduled a hearing for 9 a.m. Aug. 24 in Birmingham to consider those motions.

The new law passed the Legislature in June and has been described by opponents and supporters as the toughest crackdown on illegal immigration in the country.

The three cases include a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department, a similar action filed by a coalition of civil rights groups and a third suit filed by Alabama religious leaders.

Attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department had requested the consolidation of the cases. The Justice Department, which also is mounting a court challenge against Arizona's immigration law, argues that immigration is a federal matter, not one to be addressed by state policies. 

But officials in Alabama and other states that have passed immigration laws maintain that the federal government has failed to address undocumented immigrants, a population they contend puts a drain on local services and budgets.

Two of the lawsuits seek to block Alabama's new law before it takes effect.

A third lawsuit was filed by Alabama religious leaders saying the new law's prohibition against providing shelter or transportation to undocumented immigrants violates God's command for people "to be a good Samaritans."

Leaders of the Episcopal, Methodist and Roman Catholic churches argue in the lawsuit that "the bishops have reason to fear that administering of religious sacraments, which are central to the Christian faith, to known undocumented persons may be criminalized under this law."

The lawsuit states that it seeks to prevent "irreparable harm" to the 338,000 members of the three churches in Alabama. It calls Alabama's new law "the nation's most merciless anti-immigration legislation."

The law, if enforced, will place Alabama church members in the "untenable position of verifying individuals' immigration documentation" before being able to provide things such as food clothing, shelter and transportation to those in need, according to the lawsuit.

This story contains material from The Associated Press.

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