Alabama Church Seeks to Create Own Police Force

A Birmingham-area church wants to create its own police force to protect its 4,000 members, schools and ministries.

The Alabama Senate approves. Civil libertarians do not.

In April, the state senate voted 24-4 on a bill to let 4,000-member Briarwood Presbyterian Church create a police department. Church officials say it would be similar to forces at state colleges, universities, and other public educational campuses.

The Alabama House is considering similar legislation.

Church leaders say an on-site police force is needed in light of school shootings, attacks on church services, and other terrorist acts in recent years.

Matt Moore, the church administrator, said Briarwood has 40 ministries, including a pre-K-12 school and a seminary.

“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 who so heroically and effectively serve their communities,” Moore said in a news release.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama objects to the bill, believing it to be unconstitutional.

Randall Marshall, the ACLU’s acting executive director, said in a memo carried by NBC News that the bill would violate the First Amendment or the U.S. Constitution and, if enacted, “would not survive a legal challenge.”

“Vesting state police powers in a church police force violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” Marshall’s memo states.

The ACLU also objects to another bill, the Alabama Church Protection Act, which would let churches appoint armed congregants for security and cover them with legal protections if they shoot anybody.

“These bills unnecessarily carve out special programs for religious organizations and inextricably intertwine state authority and power with church operations,” Marshall said.

Code 16-22-1 of Alabama law says colleges and other private educational institutions can employ one or more officers to patrol their campuses. But to do the same, the church needs approval from the legislature.

Alabama Sen. J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills

Sen. J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, sponsored the Senate bill. Waggoner, the senate’s majority leader, serves the district where Briarwood is located, although according to his bio, he attends a different congregation.

Moore said the officers would follow the highest standards of professionalism demanded by the state’s police licensing agency.

He wrote, “Upon obtaining lawful legislative permission, the personnel employed by the church will meet all requirements and be certified by the Alabama Peace Officer Training Commission, and will engage in appropriate continuing education and training provided by law enforcement agencies.

“The police officers would be restricted to the church’s campuses and be able to respond to emergency situations while coordinating with local authorities. The sole purpose of this proposed legislation is to provide a safe environment for the church, its members, students, and guests.”

Church leaders conclude, however, that the church’s safety ultimately comes from a higher power.

“While seeking to be responsible, ultimately the church proclaims that its trust is in the Lord of Glory who sovereignly cares and provides for His people,” Moore wrote.  — Bill Miller, contributor, Texas & U.S. Law Shield blog