Alabama church may get its own police force

Alabama lawmakers could send a bill to the governor this week that would allow a megachurch to establish its own police force with the same powers as traditional cops. It has already passed the Alabama Senate and is awaiting a House vote.

Briarwood Presbyterian Church sits on the buckle of the Bible Belt, but it’s more than a church. It has a seminary and a school spread across multiple locations and, beyond Sunday services, the church claims as many as 8,000 people pass through its campuses daily, reports CBS News correspondent David Begnaud.

Concerned about the safety of its students, Briarwood is asking the state legislature to allow it to hire its own cops with “all of the powers of law enforcement officers.”

When asked why they don’t just hire off-duty officers, religion reporter for al.com Greg Garrison explained, “That’s what they already do, but they say sometimes they have difficulty getting enough to staff all their events.”

Why doesn’t the church just call 911 if they need help?

“Well they could but they believe that to be truly secure at all their events, they need security officials there,” Garrison said.

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. 

However, some, like Randall Marshall of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, question the need.

“It’s a problem because it violates the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution. This takes what is a core governmental power – the police power – and vests it in the hands of a religious organization as a church,” Marshall said. 

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.

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

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.