Should churches have police forces?
via Joe Songer |

Should churches have police forces?

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An Alabama mega-church, Briarwood Presbyterian, is inching closer to a state law that would allow its two campuses to have a dedicated police force of its choosing. The church has thousands of events each year at its schools and facilities, and a dedicated police force could be a better option than private security or hiring off-duty officers. Legislation passed last year but wasn't signed by the former governor. Opponents, like the Alabama ACLU, say the idea is a constitutional mess. Police officers represent the state and should stay separate from the church.

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Alabama law provides for the employment of one or more persons to act as police officers at colleges and other private educational institutions. Why should churches the size of Briarwood (4,100 members and 2,000 K-12 students) be different? 

"All they will be charged with is protecting the church from crimes and criminal acts," [said A. Eric Johnston, the bill's author].
The legislation confines the church police officers' authority to "the campuses and properties of Briarwood Presbyterian Church," and requires them to be certified by the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission....If they arrested someone, they would turn that person over to law enforcement from that jurisdiction, who would take the person to the appropriate jail, he said.

It's a reasonable desire to be able to provide reliable safety and security for their church members and students.

The Alabama ACLU sees constitutional problems aplenty, and is already planning court action if the law is enacted. There are issues of transparency and accountability. The police must enforce the laws of the state, not the religious rules of a local church. What happens if Briarwood Presbyterian wants their private police force to look the other way if somebody is breaking the law or even infringing on another individual's civil rights?

Church officials say the move has nothing to do with complications from a student drug bust in 2015. 

But a drug bust did happen and the church school officials weren't eager to talk about it.

"The problem, of course, is that silence fuels the belief and the expectation that the plague of drug abuse does not happen in the affluent zip codes, or among the churched, or the vigilant, or the exceptional. But we know better. Of course it can happen at Briarwood. It can happen anywhere."

Critics wonder if the move for private police is to keep incidents like this under a tighter wrap.

Briarwood is among the largest congregations in Alabama, with 4,100 members. But it is eclipsed by others in the state, including the 15-campus Church of the Highlands, which boasts a weekly attendance of 40,000. Many fear a flood of church-affiliated forces if the Alabama law passes.

National media seem fascinated. And maybe they are taking things too far out of context.

"Officers would operate only on church property.....Church officials don't understand why anyone would be opposed to this. As one official told us today, 'what's all the fuss about'?"

The church isn't just a place to worship on Sundays. It's a full community. They have thousands of events throughout the year, from holidays to birthdays and picnics and more. 

Some see the conservative church position in even starker terms.

"It leaves me to wonder things like, if church members from this church decide to go protest outside of a clinic, does their police force come with them?” said Danielle Hurd, Alabama state organizer with Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity.
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