Alabama Bill May Test Legal Limits on Church Police Forces

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Alabama may soon find out whether there are constitutional restraints against creation of church-based police forces, says the New York Times. A bill passed Tuesday by the State Senate would grant Briarwood Presbyterian Church near Birmingham the right to “appoint and employ one or more persons to act as police officers to protect the safety and integrity of the church and its ministries.” Supporters say the measure is necessary in increasingly dangerous times. Critics argue it is gratuitous and unconstitutional. If passed by the Alabama House, the bill would land on the desk of a brand new governor whose predecessor’s term came to a scandalous end this week. A 2015 version of the bill was left unsigned by Gov. Robert Bentley.

Briarwood has more than 4,000 members and schools for students from preschool through grade 12. A news release from the church noted that under state law, private universities already have the right to hire police officers, a provision the church aims to “mirror” with this new legislation. It cited fear over recent shootings at schools and churches. “What this bill would do is to grant to a church — a religious organization — what is quintessentially governmental police power,” said Randall C. Marshall of the ACLU of Alabama. He predicted the law, if enacted, would be struck down in federal courts.

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