Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Church Police?

Salon is reporting today that a bill has been proposed in the Alabama State Senate that would allow Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham to hire its own police force, “invested with all of the powers of law enforcement officers in this state.” Besides alluding to a Monty Python sketch, this would set a dangerous precedent regarding the separation of church and state if the bill is passed and signed into law.

“The sole purpose of this proposed legislation is to provide a safe environment for the church, its members, students and guests,” the church said in a memo sent to Salon after requests for comment. The memo also mentioned the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, claiming that the church needs “qualified first responders” in case such a thing would happen there.

This particular church does not sit in some kind of lawless territory without access to the same law enforcement services available to other Alabama citizens. As NBC News has noted, the church is served by the sheriff’s departments in both Jefferson and Shelby Counties. “This proposed legislation seems like a clear violation of church-state separation, and a clear violation of the Constitution,” Alex Luchenitser, the associate director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a phone call. “Government bodies must not delegate official power to religious entities.”

Luchenitser cited a 1982 Supreme Court case, Larkin v. Grendel’s Den, in which an 8-1 majority found that states could not give churches the official authority to grant and deny liquor licenses. The ACLU of Alabama cited the same decision in a memo sent, upon request, to Salon. “Indeed, allocating any quintessential governmental power to a religious institution plainly violates the Establishment Clause,” the memo said, warning the state of Alabama that giving a church its own police force “would not survive a legal challenge.”

The thing that I find weird about the idea is that it's a solution in search of a problem. There are no laws on the books that would prevent the church from hiring private security, even armed private security. Hiring "qualified first responders" is likewise not an issue. So it's not clear to me what this church is trying to do, or why they specifically want to set up a "police force." It's not like the church couldn't hire police officers as private security officers. That happens all the time at large organizations.

My guess is that given all this, the bill probably won't go through. There's really no need for church police that can't be served by private security and/or private first responders, and the constitutional challenges that the concept poses are substantial. What I'd like to know is whether the deal is just that the church didn't think it through, or if there's some ulterior motive at work that nobody from the church wants to talk about.

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