Alabama senate votes to let church create its own police force

It would be the first time an individual Alabama church would be granted its own law enforcement.

Police line up outside Church of the Covenant in Washington, PA, for a funeral in November, 2016. CREDIT: AP/Jared Wickerham
Police line up outside Church of the Covenant in Washington, PA, for a funeral in November, 2016. CREDIT: AP/Jared Wickerham

The Alabama state senate passed a bill on Tuesday that would allow an individual church to create its own police force to patrol their property and schools, stirring controversy about the role of private law enforcement units for houses of worship.

According to the Associated Press, the bill passed the senate in a 24–4 vote to grant Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama the right to create its own police staff. Officers would be restricted to church property, but still “invested with all of the powers of law enforcement officers” in Alabama, according to the text of the bill.

A similar bill is still being debated in the Alabama House of Representatives, but news of the legislation has already sparked debate.

Supporters of the bill argue that in addition to protecting the church itself, which claims around 4,000 members, the officers will be charged with policing Briarwood’s various Christian schools and seminaries, which boast roughly 2,000 students.

“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…”

Controversy over the proposal has been brewing for years, as officials at Briarwood — which is affiliated with the conservative Presbyterian Church in America denomination — have been pursuing such legislation since at least 2015. A version of the bill passed both houses that year, but then-Gov. Robert Bentley refused to sign it into law, with administration officials voicing concerns that it would spur the creation of private police forces across the state.

This time around, however, lawmakers and locals who support the bill are hopeful the new governor will back the effort, which they say is rooted in practical concerns. A February statement provided to ThinkProgress by representatives at Briarwood cited the horrific mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary as inspiring the push for increased security.

“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,” the statement reads. “Code 16- 22–1 of Alabama law provides for the employment of one or more persons to act as police officers at colleges and other private educational institutions. The church seeks to mirror that provision in a special law to be presented to the Alabama Legislature.”

It’s not unheard of for larger religious institutions — such as Brigham Young University, which is owned and operated by the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — to have their own police forces. Some evangelical Christian colleges such as Baylor University, a Baptist school, also have their own law enforcement officers.

But smaller faith organizations typically rely on private security firms or outside police departments assigned to them — which critics say raises questions about why a church would need its own police force.

ThinkProgress reached out to both supporters and opponents of the bill, but did not receive any reply by press time. During the 2015 debate over the legislation, however, Sen. Hank Sanders (D-Selma) noted that the creation of such private police forces at churches and other non-profits create a fertile ground for corruption, as officers would report to church officials.

“We are creating a situation here that will not limit itself and we won’t be able to limit it after a while,” Sanders said at the time.

Sanders ended up voting in favor of the resolution this year, but religious groups have sometimes used loopholes and lack of oversight to obscure issues of abuse. Last year, for instance, Christian day schools in Alabama became the subject of a Reveal investigative report highlighting a pattern of negligence, such as when disabled girl was abandoned to soak in her own vomit until a parent arrived, or when a 6-year-old developed a brain injury and lost three teeth knocked after being trampled. Yet the Alabama Department of Human Resources has no power to investigate either incident, due to religious exemptions.

Briarwood schools have also fielded accusations of unnecessary secrecy, such as when administrators refused to disclosed details about a drug probe involving their students.

News of the legislation also comes at a time when conservative lawmakers across the Southeast are pushing legislation to allow people to carry firearms into church. Faith leaders in Texas in Georgia have responded by banning guns in their churches, and putting up “no guns” signs around their churches.