Alabama Governor Signs Law Allowing Church to Have Its Own Police Force

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By NTD Newsroom
June 24, 2019US News
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Alabama Governor Signs Law Allowing Church to Have Its Own Police Force
The Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, where Governor Kay Ivey signed Code 16-22, last Wednesday, that grants religious institutions the right to hire their own police force (Julie Bennett/Getty Images)

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has signed Alabama Code 16-22 that allows Briarwood Presbyterian Church to set up its private law enforcement agency for its own sanctuary, seminary, and school campuses.

The recently approved regulation, approved two weeks ago, allows the Birmingham-based church to set up a private law enforcement department with government powers to make arrests and detain anyone who breaks the law on its properties.

A similar measure proposed four years ago died in 2017 amid public outcry over the separation of church and state, and the violation of the Establishment Clause.

However, church officials, who made the decision in light of armed attacks on schools and churches, are saying it’s not feasible for regular law enforcement to try to protect its 4,100 members, 2,000 students, and its campuses in Jefferson and Shelby counties.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the legislation into effect on June 19.

Kay Ivey
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on the event of signing another bill, on May 15, 2019, in Montgomery, Alabama (Hal Yeager/Alabama Governor’s Office/AP)

Attorney Ken Riley told WRBC that other large congregations may soon follow.

“I think that other congregations and academies could be on the fast track,” he said. “They would at least have the precedent of Briarwood and Madison Academy being able to join the ranks of small colleges and universities.”

Here is the press release from Briarwood:

In March 2016, the Alabama Legislature established an Emergency Task Force on School Safety and Security, which released its report, “A New Culture of Safety” December 31 of that year. The report recognized that the presence of qualified first responders and law enforcement officers has proven to be the number one line of defense in providing a safe environment, and recommended that each Alabama school have a resource officer on location.

Briarwood Christian School, a ministry of Briarwood Presbyterian Church, is a Class 5A school with approximately 2,000 students and faculty located on two campuses in unincorporated Jefferson and Shelby County, Alabama. Briarwood is grateful for and enjoys a wonderful working relationship with the law enforcement agencies in the communities in which it resides: Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, Shelby County Sheriff’s Department, and Vestavia Hills Police Department and desires to continue these partnerships. Briarwood also recognizes the State budgetary issues identified by the Emergency Task Force on School Safety and Security which coupled with the demand for APOST certified qualified first responders creates stress on our law enforcement departments. This can and does lead to full-time staffing issues for both campus locations.

Alabama Code 16-22 allows certain educational institutions to appoint and employ one or more suitable persons to act as police officers to keep off intruders and prevent trespass upon the institution property. The institutions currently provided the protection under this statute include a number that have less students than does Briarwood Christian School.

We are grateful to the governor and our elected officials for approving our request to be added to the existing Alabama Code 16-22.

Critics contend that the mega-church already has its own security, and, if officers are accountable only to church officials, it will create a dangerous situation where the church has gained government authorities that could easily be abused, according to NPR.

While the publication reported critics saying the church has a history of racism and homophobia, reports did not identify specific cases to corroborate the claims. Other critics have simply identified biblical doctrine they claim to be discriminatory.

Randall Marshall, the executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, raised his concern that the the new law could lead to abuse and covering-up of criminal activities on campus. He expects the code to be challenged in court in the future.

Matthew Moore, Briarwood’s church administrator, told ABC 33/40 that they will be following the model set by other educational institutions that benefit from such security.

“This initiative will require significant planning and development of proper agreements, policies and operating procedures,” Moore said. “Not until we have a well-developed plan based on best law enforcement practices and following the model of other institutions that benefit from AL 16-22 will we proceed with hiring an APOST certified officer.”

He added that police officers will be responsible to the church only.

Judge John Carrol at Cumberland School of Law stated that future police officers will have “The power to arrest, the power to engage in hot pursuit, the power to use non-lethal force, those kinds of things.”

Financial records and internal investigations can be kept private, while others will have to be made public.

When asked about transparency concerns, Moore said, “Briarwood intends to be fully transparent and cooperative with all applicable laws.”

The new policy will take effect in the fall.

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