CSI Davidson: Church-College Cops Can’t Have State Power, Says N.C. Court

Fighting crime can’t be easy, but deputizing religious groups to do the job of police officers definitely isn’t the answer.

Fortunately, that shouldn’t be happening in North Carolina, thanks to a unanimous state appellate court decision yesterday. In State of North Carolina v. Yencer, a three-judge panel ruled that it is an unconstitutional “government entanglement with religion” to allow a religious school’s security officers to enforce state law.

Davidson College, a Presbyterian-affiliated institution near Charlotte, received police powers under a state statute that allows the attorney general to “certify a private, nonprofit institution of higher education…as a campus police agency and to commission an individual as a campus police officer.”

In 2006, one of Davidson’s officers stopped a driver on a street adjacent to campus. Julie Anne Yencer, who was not a student at the college, sought to have the evidence obtained by the Davidson officer suppressed.

Two North Carolina Supreme Court decisions had already concluded that granting police powers to religious colleges is a violation of the Constitution’s promise to keep government and religion separate. (State v. Pendleton and State v. Jordan)

Judge Jim Wynn said the Davidson situation was no different. Providing state police powers to a religious school, he writes, merges church and state in an inappropriate way.

Other courts have also barred that kind of relationship. For example, in a 1982 Supreme Court case, Larkin v. Grendel’s Den, Inc., a Massachusetts statute delegated state alcohol-licensing power to religious institutions. Churches were free to veto liquor licenses for establishments within a 500-foot radius.

The Supreme Court ruled the measure unconstitutional, writing, “The Framers did not set up a system of government in which important, discretionary governmental powers would be delegated to or shared with religious institutions.”

Lesson learned: making AND upholding our laws are jobs for the state, not a religious group. We applaud this North Carolina court for getting it right.