POLITICS

This Alabama megachurch might get its own police force

Jody Ray Bennett
Author
Jody Ray Bennett
This Alabama megachurch might get its own police force

The Alabama-based Briarwood Presbyterian megachurch is one step closer in creating its very own police force after the Alabama Senate approved recent legislation on the matter. The bill is now heading to the state House of Representatives and if passed, would allow the new group to have the same powers as other law enforcement in Alabama.

The church cited that it needed the police force to protect its 4,000-plus members and school. The bill states that hired officers would have to undergo the same training and certification as other state police officials, but these specifically would be restricted to the church’s campus.

If passed, it would be one of the first legislation of its kind in the modern United States.

Parishioner Police

The church told a reporter that they made the decision after the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings. As NPR noted, “While churches have been known to form their own watch programs to enhance security and safety in North Carolina and elsewhere, it's rare for an American church to form its own police force.”

There are, however, few anomalies. The Washington National Cathedral Police operate for the church in the U.S. capital. Policing was also handled by the Church of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City prior to 1851 (when a state police force was founded).

Nevertheless, these types of legislation come among a wave of proposed bills in the American south to allow both open and concealed carry options in bars, concert venues, and churches. Churches have been added to that list as heightened fears rose in the aftermath of the 2015 Charleston church shooting.

A Legal Mess

The church claims that because it has thousands of events at its school and on its campus each year, a “dedicated police force could be a better option than private security or hiring off-duty officers.”

Nevertheless, opponents like the ACLU argue that police officers “represent the state” and that police forces should be separate from the church. If this legislation passes, could it violate the Establishment Clause.

As a report on Baptist Press noted:

“Legal analysts point to conflicting interpretations of whether the law would violate the Establishment Clause, which stipulates "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion....

Briarwood has been assured by counsel that the law is not an Establishment Clause issue, and points to Alabama Code 16-22-1 that allows the "employment of one or more persons to act as police officers at colleges and other private educational institutions."

The ongoing debate has caused Alabamians to ponder if churches should have police forces at all (see this video here produced by AL.com).

As AL.com notes:

“The Alabama ACLU sees constitutional problems aplenty, and is already planning court action if the law is enacted. There are issues of transparency and accountability. The police must enforce the laws of the state, not the religious rules of a local church. What happens if Briarwood Presbyterian wants their private police force to look the other way if somebody is breaking the law or even infringing on another individual's civil rights?”

It’s a sticky situation, and presents and interesting legal problem that may likely become tied up for years.