The State of Alabama could soon give a megachurch its own police force – a move that many religious freedom advocates, including Americans United, have pointed out would not only be unprecedented but also unconstitutional.
By a 24-4 vote, the Alabama Senate approved Senate Bill 193 last month. The bill would allow Briarwood Presbyterian Church to create a police force “with all of the powers of law enforcement officers in this state.” The newly minted church police officers would have authority to patrol the church and its properties in suburban Birmingham.
It is unclear why the Briarwood Presbyterian Church would even need its own police force considering law enforcement officers from nearby jurisdictions already patrol the area where the church is located. Moreover, this bill has an obvious flaw: A church police force violates the separation of church and state.
Nonetheless, SB 193 could soon head to a final vote in the Alabama House of Representatives.
As AU’s Associate Legal Director Alex Luchenitser explained in Salon, this bill “seems like . . . a clear violation of the Constitution.”
A church police force would violate the separation of church and state.
Its first problem is that it would delegate a core state function – law enforcement – to the Briarwood Presbyterian Church. That’s not okay under the Constitution because by delegating that authority, there’s a risk the police will enforce religious doctrine instead of state law. And that’s exactly what the Framers wanted to avoid when they drafted the First Amendment.
Its second problem is that it obviously gives favorable treatment to one church. The Constitution, however, commands that one religious denomination, institution or house of worship cannot officially be preferred over another. (Nor can religion be preferred over non-religion.)
As Luchenitser explained to Rewire, “By singling out a particular church for this special benefit, the state legislature is sending a message that it approves . . . of this particular church.”
Because of the obvious threat to church-state separation, AU’s Alabama chapter wrote to the House opposing the bill. In an April 24 letter, chapter president Vivian Beckerle called SB 193 “unnecessary and unconstitutional” and urged state representatives to oppose it.
“Of course, Americans United supports the right of all Americans to be safe and secure in their house of worship,” Beckerle noted. “However, that does not require compromising our constitutional protections.”
Hopefully, the House will heed this wisdom and reject this unnecessary and unconstitutional proposal.