Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Sanctuary Definition:

A place of temporary refuge and protection to avoid law enforcement.

Related Terms: Diplomatic Immunity, Asylum

Sanctuary, a concept very similar to asylum, is traditionally taken in a church or monastery.

"The concept of sanctuary," wrote Pamela Begaj, "is deeply rooted in biblical tradition and is mentioned in ... the Hebrew Scriptures".

Begal also relied on this definition of sanctuary:

"... a place where fugitives can seek temporary refuge in a particular city or on religious property.... (O)nce the fugitive entered sanctuary he was deemed to be under the protection of divine law, exceeding the control of worldly powers."

Sanctuary - Criminal Law

Sanctuary was a special criminal law option available in Greek and Roman sociatye, as well as in European Medieval times to persons who had just committed a crime. There, in a church or monastery, the individual could be exempted from the normal prosecution which, in those days, could be quite severe (see, for example, The Law's Hall of Horrors).

"Anglo-Saxon kings permitted the use of sanctuary in many churches. The privilege of sanctuary was rooted in the view that the legal secular system was imperfect in achieving the model justice of divine law; consequently, the community relied on natural law to guarantee equity and provide refuge to those who were at the mercy of blood vengeance."1

sanctuaryBut the ordeal, even within sanctuary, was no piece of cake. The fugitive had to remain within the walls of the sanctuary, abandon his or her oath to the king, followed which they had a short period of time to leave the country.

They were considered to be "dead", so much so that their land was forfeited to the King and their wife considered to be a widow. If they refused to renounce their oath, they could be starved out of the sanctuary.

Henry VIII of England even took to branding them with a hot iron before they left the country just in case they tried to return; they could then be quickly spotted and arrested.

Abolished from the common law in 1624 and, in France, at the time of the Revolution, the principle of sanctuary continues today, in somewhat altered form, as diplomatic immunity under international law, and in immigration law.

Sanctuary - Immigration Law

Sanctuary is still sought in modern times where an individual being sought by law enforcement officers, often immigration officers, will enter and seek to stay within a local church, appealing to the church on humanitarian and compassionate grounds to avoid deportation. The person enters the church and stays there. This buys the person time and may also provide a new set of facts upon which a new hearing might be convened.


  • Begaj, Pamela, An Analysis of Historical and Legal Sanctuary and a Cohesive Approach to the Current Movement, 42 J. Marshall L. Rev. 137 (2008-2009); also NOTE 1.


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