A bill that is moving through Alabama’s state senate, could green light a megachurch’s desire to establishing its own police department.
A private police force:
Briarwood Presbyterian Church, located in suburban Birmingham, which boasts 4,100 members, argues that it needs its own police force to counter any potential threats as its home to a K-12 school and a theological seminary with 2,000 students and teachers.
Matt Moore, church administrator said in a statement: “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. The sole purpose of this proposed legislation is to provide a safe environment for the church, its members, students and guests.”
He was referring to the mass murder of 20 first graders and six teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut by a deranged man with an AR-15 style rifle just before Christmas 2012.
The officers will be paid for by the church.
Moore added that Alabama law “provides for the employment of one or more persons to act as police officers at colleges and other private educational institutions.”
The bill, SB 193 was sent last week to the full Senate for a full vote by Alabama’s Senate Judiciary Committee
Senate Majority Leader J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner is the sponsor of the legislation. He represents the area and is one of the longest-serving members of the Alabama Legislature.
Is it constitutional?
However, the ACLU of Alabama is requesting Waggoner and other lawmakers to vote no to the Briarwood police force and to another bill called The Alabama Church Protection Act that would allow churches to enlist gun-carrying congregants for security and provide them with legal protections if they shoot anybody.
The ACLU’s Acting Executive Director, Randall Marshall, said: “It’s our view this would plainly be unconstitutional.” He wrote a memo to the legislature saying they believe the bills “violate the First Amendment or the U.S. Constitution and, if enacted, would not survive a legal challenge.”
The memo states: “Vesting state police powers in a church police force violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. These bills unnecessarily carve out special programs for religious organizations and inextricably intertwine state authority and power with church operations.”
Democrat State Senator Rodger Smitherman, who represents Birmingham said that he understands why the church would want its own force because “they are in a remote area.” He added saying: “There are valid constitutional concerns and I think this issue needs to be properly vetted before the Senate votes on it.”
The church complex is already policed by sheriff’s deputies from both Jefferson County and Shelby County according to local law enforcement, while the area around it is patrolled by the Vestavia Hills Police Department.
Sgt. Jack Self of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department said that they also hire off-duty law enforcement to work special events.
The Associated Press has reported that Alabama has given a few private universities the authority to have a police force, but never a church or non-school entity. Opponents have expressed worries that churches would be able to cover up crimes.