Attorney defends Ala. megachurch's proposal for own police force

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- A bill that would allow a church to form its own police force is working its way through Alabama’s state legislature. 

In the buckle of the Bible Belt, Briarwood Presbyterian is a small community, a daycare center, a seminary and a school, grades K-12. It’s a mega church serving 8,000 people a day.

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Greg Garrison

CBS Evening News

Greg Garrison covers religion in Alabama for AL.com and spoke with CBS News.

“The conservative Christian churches have a lot of power in Alabama politics,” Garrison said. “If Briarwood Presbyterian Church says we need a police department, I think a lot of people will say, ‘sure.’”

A shooting this past weekend injured five teenagers and a baby at another church 15 miles north of Briarwood. In a statement, Briarwood pointed to recent mass shootings at churches and schools to reinforce their need. “The sole purpose of this proposed legislation is to provide a safe environment for the church, its members, students and guests,” the statement said.

The bill would authorize Briarwood to establish its own independent police force. Attorney and Briarwood church member Eric Johnston helped draft it.

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Eric Johnston

CBS Evening News

“We know that things have happened in other places, and we want to provide a secure environment for the visitors and the members that come to Briarwood,” Johnston told CBS News.

“We do hire off duty cops and they do fill in here and there … but it’s inconsistent, it’s different people,” he said.

Randall Marshall is with the Alabama branch of the ACLU, which is prepared to sue if the bill becomes law.

“It’s a problem because it violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” Marshall said. “It establishes a singular religion that is favored above all others in the state of Alabama and it gives them the authority of state government.”

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Randall Marshall

CBS Evening News

But if it does pass, no other church in the state would have what Briarwood anticipates will be at least a two-person department all its own.

Johnston asked a number of churches if they cared to be a part of this proposal and he said they refused.

Some of the restrictions of the church’s police force would include: no jail, police activity would be limited to church property, officers would answer to the church and if you had a complaint, you’d have to complain it to the church.

Church officials question why anyone would oppose this as one person told CBS News: “What’s all the fuss about?”

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Briarwood Presbyterian seeks to establish its own independent police force.

CBS Evening News

It wouldn’t be the first church with a police force. The Washington National Cathedral has 18 officers on staff and observers expect Alabama state representatives to approve Briarwood’s request.

A similar measure passed both houses of the legislature in 2015, but the governor didn’t sign it. Now, there’s a new governor. If the bill passes the house, her office says her staff will advise her on whether or not it’s prudent to sign the bill into law.