Thanks to legislation recently signed by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, one of the state’s largest churches now can set up its own police force. Birmingham’s Briarwood Presbyterian Church (BPC), which has more than 4,100 members plus a K-12 school and a seminary, has sought such permission for the past four years. The new law, which goes into effect this fall, faces challenges from critics who say it violates the separation of church and state and may allow cover-ups.
Briarwood Is Larger Than Many College Campuses
According to a press release, the church “enjoys a wonderful working relationship” with local law enforcement agencies but needs more assistance and more consistency. “We’ve got over 30,000 events a year that take place at Briarwood, going on all day, all night,” says church attorney Eric Johnston. “We do hire off-duty cops and they do fill in here and there…but it’s inconsistent, it’s different people.” Two years ago, when he was trying to get the legislation signed, Johnston noted that “Briarwood is larger than most of the colleges that have police.”
The church says an existing state law (Alabama Code 16-22) “allows certain educational institutions to appoint and employ one or more suitable persons to act as police officers to keep off intruders and prevent trespass upon the institution property.” It adds, “The institutions currently provided the protection under this statute include a number that have less students than does Birmingham Christian School.”
Plans must be developed before BPC begins hiring, says church administrator Matthew Moore. Officers must complete state-certified training and know how to use non-lethal weapons. Moore says officers will answer only to the church and its governing body, but “Briarwood intends to be fully transparent and cooperative with all applicable laws.”
Critics Call This a Slippery Slope
In years past, opponents were able to thwart similar legislation, saying it violates the Constitution. The ACLU of Alabama tweeted that it expects court challenges because this new law is “a threat to our freedom of religion and a violation of the Establishment Clause.”
Critics also have expressed concern about previous racism within BPC’s denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Founded in 1973 in Alabama, the conservative PCA apologized in 2016 for a variety of “racial sins.” Briarwood’s congregation is predominantly white, while Birmingham is two-thirds black.
A 2015 drug investigation at Briarwood’s K-12 school has some lawmakers wondering if a church-based police force would keep such issues quiet. But during that incident, “The school cooperated with law enforcement,” insists church attorney Johnston. “They didn’t cover up anything.”
When the legislation was debated in 2017, State Rep. Mary Moore asked, “What do we do when other church affiliates come and ask for the same thing? [Briarwood isn’t] a college. They’re a church, and they’re a church asking for police jurisdiction.”