Alabama Megachurch May Soon Have State Permission to Create Its Own Police Force

Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Alabama.  (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Alabama.  (Image credit: Wikipedia)

A megachurch just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, may soon be able to form their own police force.  Briarwood Presbyterian Church boasts over 4,000 members, 40 ministries, and its own schools for children from preschool through twelfth grade.  And according to a bill that passed the Alabama state senate last Tuesday, they may soon be able to employ their own police. 

"The Board of Trustees of Briarwood Presbyterian Church, organized as a nonprofit church under Alabama's nonprofit corporation law, may appoint and employ one or more persons to act as police officers to protect the safety and integrity of the church and its ministries," said the bill, sponsored by Senator J.T. "Jabo" Waggoner.  

"Persons employed as police officers pursuant to this section shall be charged with all of the duties and invested with all of the powers of law enforcement officers in this state."

This marks the third time such a bill has been introduced in Alabama.  A similar bill was left unsigned by the governor at the time, Robert Bentley, after passing in both the Senate and the House in 2015, and another version died in the House last year.

Supporters of the bill cite recent shootings and assaults as evidence of the necessity of such a measure, and note that under state law, private religious universities already hold the right to police themselves.

“After the shooting at Sandy Hook and in the wake of similar assaults at churches and schools, Briarwood recognized the need to provide qualified first responders to coordinate with local law enforcement who so heroically and effectively serve their communities,” said church administrator Matthew Moore in an emailed press release. 

Critics of the bill argue that the bill gives the megachurch gratuitous power of self-governance, and that the measure is itself unconstitutional.  

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warned legislators in a memo that the bill would “unnecessarily carve out special programs for religious organizations and inextricably intertwine state authority and power with church operations.”

It further questioned the constitutionality of the bill, citing the First Amendment, which states that Congress cannot create any law “respecting an establishment of religion.”

“What this bill would do is to grant to a church — a religious organization — what is quintessentially governmental police power,” said Randall C. Marshall, legal director of the ACLU of Alabama. “It would include the power of arrest, the power to use varying levels of force, and the discretion to decide which laws to enforce — or which laws not to enforce.”

"We think it's plainly unconstitutional as per the establishment cause of the First Amendment."

The bill will now head to the House, after passing the Alabama Senate in a vote of 24-4. If it makes it past the House, it will then be sent to the desk of sitting Alabama Governor Kay Ivey.

Tobias Wayland