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Church police dept. would be U.S. first under Ala. bill

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP) — A church could be the first in the nation to open its own police force under a bill progressing through the Alabama legislature, despite disagreement whether it might violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Briarwood Presbyterian Church, PCA in Birmingham would have permission to hire one or more police officers as church staff members under the bill that has passed the Alabama Senate and is progressing through the House. The church of 4,000 congregants and 2,000 students enrolled in its seminary and parochial school, according to The Alabama Baptist, cites a need for protection in the wake of increasing violence against churches and schools.

According to the bill, the police officers would have the full authority granted government police forces, would meet all of the concurrent state requirements, and would fall outside the current practice some churches use of hiring off-duty police officers or private security personnel.

Legal analysts say granting full police powers to church employees might be interpreted to violate the separation of church and state specified in the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and could lead to such a law being overturned in appellate courts. Others say it would be no different than granting colleges authority to establish police departments.

Jimmy Meeks, a Southern Baptist minister and retired police officer who encourages and conducts security training for churches, told Baptist Press he’s fully in favor of the measure.

“I’m all for it because cities are not the only ones with police departments,” Meeks said. “Hospital districts have them. School districts have them…. The state’s not going to let you do it unless you meet the requirement. I’m all for it.”

Meeks, a presenter of church security seminars, has tracked news reports of violent attacks and deaths occurring on the properties of churches and faith-based groups since 1999.

Briarwood is uniquely positioned to employ its own police force, Meeks said, noting the church’s Birmingham Theological Seminary and its Briarwood Christian School for fourth through 12th graders.

“What they’re going to end up with [are] some good seasoned veteran officers who are mature, who’ve done it for 20 or 30 years,” Meeks predicted. “They’re going to love that flock and they’re going to protect them.”

Senate Majority Leader J.T. Waggoner, R-Birmingham, himself a member of the Homewood Church of Christ, authored the bill that passed the Senate April 11 by a vote of 24-4 with seven abstaining or not present, according to the Alabama legislature bill tracking system. A companion bill authored by Arnold Mooney, R-Montgomery, was placed on the House calendar April 20. Mooney’s wife Kelly is director of admissions at Briarwood Christian School where all of the couple’s three children attended, according to Mooney’s website

“Persons employed as police officers … shall be charged with all of the duties and invested with all of the powers of law enforcement officers in this state,” the bill reads. “Every police officer appointed and employed … shall be certified by the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission and shall meet all of its requirements, including continuing education.” No government funds would be used in employing the officers.

Legal analysts point to conflicting interpretations of whether the law would violate the Establishment Clause, which stipulates “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….”

Briarwood has been assured by counsel that the law is not an Establishment Clause issue, and points to Alabama Code 16-22-1 that allows the “employment of one or more persons to act as police officers at colleges and other private educational institutions.”

“The church does not have the ability to exercise any authority or enforce any law at any place except on the church property and related to criminal acts which may take place on that property,” Briarwood said in an April 19 press release. “Even then, arrests and other procedures that may follow are done in conjunction with local law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office.”

The church claims a right of “any church, religious college or other private entity” to request such protection by “demonstrating to the Legislature its need.”

“Public schools have local police officers assigned to them, a church school does not,” Briarwood said. “Having a police officer on staff as a qualified first responder with the ability to access official channels of communication is essential to our safety.”

In a Feb. 1 press release, Briarwood specifically pointed to the December 2012 massacre of 27 students and employees at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and “similar assaults at churches and schools.”

Robert Tuttle, a specialist in legal relations between governments and faith-based institutions, said in an April 21 article in The Atlantic Magazine that the bill could face Supreme Court precedents requiring religious neutrality and the separation of church and state.

Tuttle, a George Washington University law professor, pointed to a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlawing a special school district that had been created for a Hasidic Jewish sect, The Atlantic reported. Tuttle also noted a 1982 Supreme Court ruling overturning a Massachusetts law that had allowed churches and schools to block the issuance of liquor licenses to businesses within a 500-foot radius.

The framers of the Constitution “all agreed that it was not the job of the government to turn over any of its coercive authorities to religious institutions,” the Atlantic quoted Tuttle.