Senate Bill 193, written by Republican Senator Jabo Waggoner, would give Briarwood Presbyterian Church the ability to employ “one or more persons to act as police officers to protect the safety and integrity of the church and its ministries.”
Briarwood Presbyterian Church is a 4,000-member congregation based in Birmingham, Alabama. The so-called “mega-church” was named one of Church Report’s “50 Most Influential churches in America” in 2006.
The church spans two campuses and has its own K-12 school. It is the because of this school that church administrators claim they need the police force, citing incidents of school shootings such as Sandy Hook.
“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,” church administrator Matt Moore said in a statement reported by NBC News.
Interestingly, according to law enforcement who spoke with NBC News, the unique location of the church complex makes it such that it is already under the protection of sheriffs from both Jefferson County and Shelby County.
According to the wording of the pending legislation, every police officer would have to be certified by the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission. Once certified, however, the church would have exclusive jurisdiction over the police force.
Section 1 c) reads:
“The authority of any police officer appointed and employed pursuant to this section shall be restricted to the campuses and properties of Briarwood Presbyterian Church.”
It is this portion of the bill that has raised concerns for opponents.
“It’s just a significant concern for me that a church could be a completely self-contained unit in regards to law enforcement, making determinations on grounds about what’s investigated, what’s not investigated,” said Rep. Chris England, according to an article on AL.com.
Randall Marshall, executive director of the Alabama branch of the ACLU, spoke out against the bill in an interview with The Atlantic.
“Our analysis is that this bill, if enacted and signed by the governor, would clearly violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment in vesting what is really a quintessentially government power—the police power—in the hands of a religious entity with essentially no oversight after that,” Marshall said.
If passed, the police force would make history in the U.S., putting the Alabama church on par with the Vatican’s Swiss Guard. Yet both the church and Senator Waggoner argue the legislation is not that different from Code 16-22-1, a part of Alabama legislation that allows private campuses to have their own police force.
This is the second time the bill is being considered. The Alabama legislature first passed the bill in 2015, but that version failed to garner the signature of Governor Robert Bentley.
If the legislation passes, Marshall says there will “no doubt” be a legal challenge to be had.
“What’s not to go wrong?” Marshall said in an interview with AL.com. “You’re taking the power of the state, in one of the core governmental functions, and investing it in a religious organization, and allowing a church to decide what laws to enforce, what not to enforce, and how to use force.”