Should a church be allowed to have its own police force?

MONTGOMERY (Carrie Brown McWhorter) — A bill that would allow a Birmingham church to employ its own police force is advancing in the state Legislature.

The bill would authorize the 4,000-member Briarwood Presbyterian Church to create a police department for the church and two schools run by the church.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill March 15. The bill now moves to the Alabama Senate. A House committee has approved a similar bill, but the proposal has yet to be considered by the House.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Jefferson and Shelby counties), whose wife and daughter work at Briarwood Christian School. All three of his children graduated from Briarwood schools.

This is the second legislative attempt initiated by the church to increase security at the campus. Last year the Alabama Legislature passed a bill that would have allowed Briarwood to hire at least one full-time police officer. That bill would have given the officer or officers the same authority as city or county law enforcement while on church property.

Briarwood manages two campuses. In addition to the church in Vestavia Hills, Briarwood operates two school campuses, Birmingham Theological Seminary and Briarwood Christian School, an accredited K-12 school with approximately 2,000 students located in Shelby County.

Gov. Robert Bentley refused to sign the measure last year but did not cite specific reasons for letting the bill die. At the time, lawmakers and state officials expressed concerns that the bill could open the door to private police forces statewide.

Birmingham attorney Eric Johnston drafted the bill for the church. In February Johnston told Greg Garrison of AL.com that he expected the bill to pass both both houses of the Legislature again and believes the governor will sign it into law this time.

Johnston said the bill was needed to have a consistent security presence on the church campuses, which he said holds more than 30,000 events a year. The church currently relies on off-duty police officers for security.

Johnston said he doesn’t know of any other churches in Alabama with their own police departments but said it’s similar to a small college having its own police department. Briarwood is larger than some colleges, Johnston said. He also noted that the police officers would only patrol the church’s two campuses, not nearby neighborhoods.

A March 10 ABC News story on Briarwood’s effort noted that the church’s effort may be the first-ever such attempt in the U.S.

Heath Grant, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City told ABC News that he had never heard of such a proposal.

“From the perspective of security, churches usually have relationships with the local police departments. I don’t know why that wouldn’t be sufficient,” Grant said.

Earlier this year, Briarwood Presbyterian Church Administrator Matt Moore released a statement on behalf of the church saying that Code 16-22-1 of Alabama law provides for the employment of one or more persons to act as police officers at colleges and other private educational institutions. “The church seeks to mirror that provision,” it says.

After obtaining legislative permission, the personnel employed by the church will meet all requirements and be certified by the Alabama Peace Officer Training Commission, the statement said. “The sole purpose of this proposed legislation is to provide a safe environment for the church, its members, students and guests.”