Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Ala., is pushing for the Alabama Legislature to pass a law allowing it and other churches to have their own police departments. Many colleges and universities, including religiously affiliated ones, have their own forces, but Briarwood’s would be a church-first in Alabama and apparently in the United States. A cathedral in York, United Kingdom, has had its own police force since 1106.
Briarwood church administrator Matt Moore told me the 4,000-member church needs a qualified first responder “to cooperate and coordinate directly with the appropriate law enforcement agency in an emergency situation.” With church and school buildings located in unincorporated Jefferson County, the city of Vestavia Hills, and unincorporated Shelby County, Moore said coordination of efforts in the event of an emergency is complicated.
Briarwood member Hannah Singer has a different view: “I get being safe, [but] this is excessive.” Briarwood’s police officers would be full-time employees of the church, and Singer wants more discussion of “all angles of having a private police,” both “positive and negative.” She wonders how the church would handle an allegation of sexual abuse.
I took these questions to Moore, and he answered them after consulting with Briarwood senior pastor Harry Reeder and others. Moore said, “Briarwood would treat allegations of sexual abuse seriously and Biblically,” with church officials reporting the charges “to the appropriate local agencies.”
Briarwood could create its police department under Alabama laws that allow schools to have such forces, but Moore said Briarwood sees itself as a church first: Briarwood’s “75 elders approved proposing the bill unanimously, and during the debate the concerns of church–state separation were discussed and considered.”
George Fox University politics professor Mark David Hall said courts were unlikely to see the proposed Alabama law as violating the First Amendment as long as it “doesn’t seem to be favoring this church, or churches, in granting such laws … but there may be good theological or prudential reasons not to do this. … I wonder why they wouldn’t just hire private security guards.”
Moore, though, said, “Hiring a security guard would not allow Briarwood to seek application and participate in the Alabama Criminal Justice Information System (ACJIS) which is the network of data and communication needed in order to provide knowledgeable first responders who are communicating directly and efficiently with local law enforcement.”
The Alabama House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee approved the proposed bill 9–2. Alabama’s House of Representatives and Senate are likely to pass the bill, and Gov. Robert Bentley is likely to sign it.