Alabama lawmakers are considering legislation to give a megachurch its own police force.
The Alabama Senate in April approved SB 193 that would allow Briarwood Presbyterian Church to create a police force “with all of the powers of law enforcement officers in this state.” The church police officers would have authority to patrol the church and its sizable properties in suburban Birmingham.
“The sole purpose of this proposed legislation is to provide a safe environment for the church, its members, students and guests,” the church said in a memo sent to the online magazine Salon. The memo mentioned the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, claiming the church needs “qualified first responders” in case such a thing would happen there.
Church member A. Eric Johnston, an attorney who wrote the legislation, told the news website Rewire the church’s police force would be certified by the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission but would be “accountable to the board of directors of the church corporation.” If the church police arrested someone, they would turn that person over to local law enforcement, Johnston said.
AU Associate Legal Director Alex Luchenitser told Rewire and Salon the legislation not only is unprecedented but also unconstitutional.
“By singling out a particular church for this special benefit, the state legislature is sending a message that it approves and favors the particular religious beliefs of this particular church,” Luchenitser said.
He said a core duty of the government – law enforcement – should not be delegated to a religious institution. Luchenitser also noted the risk that the church police would enforce religious doctrine in addition to or instead of secular laws.
AU’s Mobile Chapter sent a letter to the state House urging representatives to reject the legislation.
“The bill is both unnecessary and unconstitutional,” asserted the letter. “Creation of a church-employed and state-sanctioned police force is unprecedented and a flagrant violation of the … First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. SB 193 should be rejected.”
At Church & State’s press time, the bill was being considered by the state House.