Briarwood Presbyterian Church may soon join the ranks of the Vatican and Washington National Cathedral as a religious institution with its own police department.
Critics of the bill to allow Briarwood to establish its own police department say the move is unconstitutional. But Briarwood representatives cite the increasing rate of mass shootings at churches, schools and commercial venues as reasons for bringing police officers on staff.
Since the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee approved the legislation April 19, the Alabama House of Representatives is likely to vote this week on whether to allow the Vestavia Hills church to establish its own police department.
For the past few years, Briarwood has been seeking passage of this legislation. It went through the Senate and House last year but was not signed by former Gov. Robert Bentley. This year so far, the bill has moved steadily forward. On April 11, it was passed by the Alabama state Senate 24-2. If passed by the House, it would go to Gov. Kay Ivey to decide whether to sign it into law.
Sponsored by state Sen. J. T. “Jabo” Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, the bill would allow the church’s board of trustees to hire police officers who “shall be charged with all of the duties and invested with all of the powers of law enforcement officers in this state.”
The officers would be certified by the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission and meet all requirements such as continuing education. They would be limited to policing Briarwood’s campuses and properties. Other than an official car, no other facilities, such as a jail, would be established.
When church police made an arrest, officers for the local jurisdiction would pick up and jail the offender.
Affectionately known as “Briarworld,” the church property includes a sanctuary, school and seminary. The church is attended by 4,100 members, and the kindergarten through 12th grade school is made up of 2,000 students. In addition, the church provides 40 ministries, including ballet and sign language classes, and holds more than 30,000 events a year on its campuses in Jefferson and Shelby counties.
Church administrator Matthew Moore cites the church’s size as reason for the legislation. Just as colleges and universities have their own police forces, so Briarwood needs the security one would bring, he said.
“Public schools have local police officers assigned to them, a church school does not,” Moore 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.”
Size and visibility invite danger. “After the shooting at Sandy Hook and in the wake of similar assaults at churches and schools,” Moore said, “Briarwood recognized the need to provide qualified first responders to coordinate with local law enforcement.”
Megachurches such as Saddleback Church in Southern California and Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago have not felt the need to respond in a similar way. A. Eric Johnston, the attorney who drafted the bill, attends Briarwood and says they sought to work with other large Alabama churches on the bill, but were declined. Briarwood decided to go it alone.
But critics of the bill see the potential for abuse. Randall Marshall, acting executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama said, “Briarwood Presbyterian Church, as well as many other such institutions, already meet their security concerns through the use of private security, which does not implicate state power, or off-duty police officers who ultimately are answerable to their governmental employer for any abuse of the authority vested in them by the state.”
Off-duty police officers from the Vestavia Hills and Shelby County police departments currently provide security services to the church. Briarwood claims security from these departments is insufficient and inconsistent. The officers who work security at the church change, so relationships aren’t formed with church staff. It would be easier to have someone on staff, said Johnston, than to rely on off-duty police officers.
While he doesn’t comment on pending legislation, Shelby County Sheriff Office’s Maj. Ken Burchfield did say, “We have never been short staffed.”
In February 2015, Shelby County police officers conducted a drug raid on Briarwood Christian School. Students evidently complained about how they were treated by school officials and law enforcement during the raid. School officials remain silent on the matter, deferring to the sheriff’s office, which, also did not comment.
The bill to give Briarwood its own police force was first proposed the same year, although Johnston maintains the timing of the legislation had nothing to do with the drug raid.
A press release from Moore last week states, “We believe it is in the best interest of our members, students and visitors to provide the best protection possible for them with the least amount of intrusion upon their worship, school and other activities.”
The ability to deal with criminal activity on its own property on its own terms opens the church up to abuse of power concerns. Moore maintains a church police officer still would be obligated to obey the law. “To do otherwise, he himself would be guilty of violating criminal laws,” Moore said.
Concerns over the legislation have centered on the notion of a religious body with lethal force at its disposal. Moore maintains the church “would not use a police authority to enforce its views, nor would the proposed legislation authorize such.”
“While security concerns may be something that every institution — schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, factories, businesses, etc. — in the United States must take into account,” said ACLU’s Marshall, “it does not address the fundamental problem with vesting the power of the state in the hands of a religious body.” Marshall maintains this violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Not a Religious Police Force
“There is no Establishment Clause issue because the state is not setting up a religious police force, and it is not establishing a police force for a religious entity,” Johnston told The New York Times. “It is letting a religious entity set up a police force.”
On behalf of Briarwood, Moore said, “We are assured by counsel that this is not an Establishment Clause issue.” Since church police activity would be restricted to church property, and arrests would be performed with local law enforcement, there is no problem, Moore maintains.
Marshall contends the legislation still is unconstitutional, because there is only one church in Alabama that state authorities would be extending this right to. But Moore argues that “any church, religious college or other private entity” would be able to do the same simply “by demonstrating to the Legislature its need.”
In a second press release on Thursday, Moore reiterated the church’s reasoning: “The sole purpose of having a police officer on the staff of the church would be to enforce the criminal laws of the State of Alabama and to protect members, students and faculty of our school, and visitors who come to our two campuses for a variety of reasons. The police officer would work in conjunction with the three local law enforcement jurisdictions where our two campuses are located.”
On April 14, the ACLU of Alabama sent two public records requests to the Alabama Peace Officers Standards & Training Commission and Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. They requested are all their communication with Briarwood and the records relating to the legislation within 30 days. “So far, we haven’t gotten a response,” Marshall said.
Besides the drug raid in 2015, there have been no 911 calls to church property. But attacks at other churches are putting Briarwood on edge. Three teens and a baby were shot at Cathedral of the Cross in Center Point over Easter weekend.
A church with its own police department would not be completely new. The Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation Police provide security for the Washington National Cathedral in D.C., and the Gendarmerie Corps and the Pontifical Swiss Guard provide law enforcement and security for the Vatican.
Briarwood is aware of the theological tension this legislation raises, Moore acknowledges.
“While seeking to be responsible,” Moore said, “ultimately the church proclaims that its trust is in the Lord of Glory who sovereignly cares and provides for His people.”