Bill would allow Alabama church to form police department

A bill working its way through the Alabama legislature would allow a megachurch in suburban Birmingham to form its own police department.

The Briarwood Presbyterian Church, with its 4,100 faithful, would be the first church in the state with such a department, according to the Associated Press. With a theological seminary that boasts some 2,000 students and teachers, church leaders say they want to be able to protect themselves.

“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,” church administrator Matt Moore told NBC News.

The bill, SB 193, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week and is now headed to the Senate for a vote. Senate Majority Leader J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner is sponsoring the bill. He represents the area and is considered a powerful ally of the measure.

A few private universities in Alabama have formed police forces, but no churches have. Opponents of such a measure worry that an independent police department would enable churches to cover up crimes.

“Vesting state police powers in a church police force violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” wrote ACLU Acting Executive Director Randall Marshall in a memo to lawmakers. “These bills unnecessarily carve out special programs for religious organizations and inextricably intertwine state authority and power with church operations.”

Marshall said if it passes, the law wouldn’t survive a legal challenge.

“I voted to get it out of committee after getting assurances that they would act like a real police force and they would not be an agency that covers things up,” said State Sen. Rodger Smitherman, a Democrat.

Smitherman said he understands the church’s desire to protect itself because it sits in a remote area. But local law enforcement points out that sheriff’s deputies from two counties cover the area the church is in.

A House committee has approved a similar version of the bill. If it passes, the church would pay to staff its police department.