Alabama Legislature May Give Fundamentalist Church Its Own Police Force: What Could Go Wrong?
Donald Trump’s election didn’t just empower the alt-right troops with their #MAGA hats and Pepe the Frog avatars. The religious right is also more quietly making moves to consolidate power on a state and local level, aided by Trump’s promises to appoint conservative-friendly judges and to strike down legal limits on church-based politicking.
But even in the current environment, it’s startling to learn that the Alabama legislature is considering a bill to give a Birmingham-based church its own police force. The bill, Senate Bill 193, would specifically authorize the Briarwood Presbyterian Church, which has more than 4,000 members, to hire its own police force that would be “invested with all of the powers of law enforcement officers in this state.”
“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.”
Briarwood Presbyterian Church presented its request as a security measure but, as Luchenitser noted, the church is already allowed by law to hire private security guards if desired. He said he worried that the deployment of police officers who are invested with state powers but who ultimately answer to the religious institution that hired them could lead to all sorts of legal problems.
Having police officers who work directly for a church, he argued, could lead them to feel that they are there to “enforce the religious beliefs of this particular church.”
It’s not an idle concern. As Luchenitser noted, religious conservatives have become creative in recent years, seeking extra-governmental power to impose obedience to their religious edicts on as many people as they can grab.
“The Christian right is pushing to allow businesses to discriminate against customers based on religious beliefs,” he pointed out, noting various lawsuits from Christians who disapprove of marriage rights for same-sex couples and are trying to carve out special rights to discriminate against couples who are protected by the law.
Another example is the Hobby Lobby v. Burwell case, in which the plaintiffs argued that a woman’s insurance coverage for contraception should be based not on her needs but on her employer’s religious beliefs. The common theme here is that those on the religious right are trying to find extralegal ways to exert authority over people’s private lives and punish personal choices that the government has determined it has no right or authority to control.
The website for Briarwood Presbyterian Church has an authoritarian, theocratic bent. The pastor, Harry Reeder, puts out a regular podcast where he frequently defends Donald Trump and pushes back against the concept of secularism.
“There is no sacred-secular split in life,” Reeder argued in a March 21 podcast. “Everything in life comes under the sovereign claims of Christ.”
“That judgment if not by Divine edict is inevitable by Divinely ordained consequences for those who engage in high-handed rebellion against God’s law,” Reeder wrote in a blog post responding to the Supreme Court decision that legalized marriage between same-sex couples across the country. “Those nations who knowingly break God’s law will inevitably be broken by God’s law.”
Putting a legal police force under the authority of a religious leader who apparently believes that the laws of the government should be shaped by his definition of “God’s law” should raise a million red flags. What happens if leaders of that church or religious institution discover people they deem sinful have set foot on their campus, such as two young people of the same sex in a relationship or a parishioner who has had an abortion? Will those police be enforcing the laws of the land or the laws of the church?
As Luchenitser is concerned about the legislature singling out this one church out for special treatment, which he argued violated the establishment clause of the Constitution.
“What if a mosque asked for its own police force?” he asked rhetorically. “Would the legislature treat a mosque the same way they treat a evangelical megachurch?”
That’s extremely doubtful, which shows that the fact that Alabama legislators introduced this bill, demonstrates that the state legislature might privilege this kind of conservative Christianity above other religions.
While representatives of Briarwood Presbyterian Church insist this is just a security measure, the reality is that giving a church its police force, imbued with state powers but answerable ultimately to church authorities, is a blatantly unconstitutional idea. Assigning law enforcement powers to religious institutions, regardless of whether they misuse those powers, is the thin end of a dangerous wedge — especially in an era when America seems to be creeping toward authoritarianism.