Can a church in Alabama form their own police force?

Here’s a ticklish question for you. A Presbyterian Church in Alabama with thousands of members has asked to be allowed to form (and pay for) their own police force on their property. This has the ACLU up in arms, which was no doubt predictable, and lawsuits are sure to follow, but can they do this? (NBC News)

You can call it a God Squad.

An Alabama megachurch is seeking to establish its own police department — and a bill that would green light the force is already moving through the state senate.

The 4,100-member strong Briarwood Presbyterian Church, located in suburban Birmingham, contends it needs its own police force to counter any potential threats because it is also home to a K-12 school and a theological seminary with 2,000 students and teachers.

“After the shooting at Sandy Hook and in the wake of similar assaults at churches and schools, Briarwood recognized the need to provide qualified first responders to coordinate with local law enforcement,” church administrator Matt Moore said in a statement, referring to the mass murder of 20 first graders and six teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut by a deranged man with an AR-15 style rifle just before Christmas 2012.

At first glance it seems as if the church should win this one without much discussion. The ACLU is claiming that it would be a gross violation of the Establishment Clause in the Constitution, but that doesn’t seem nearly as obvious. To the contrary, NBC is pointing out an infrequently discussed codicil in state law which allows, “the employment of one or more persons to act as police officers at colleges and other private educational institutions.”

There’s some interesting phrasing in that law. The authors went out of their way to specify that they weren’t limiting this ability just to colleges by saying, “other private educational institutions.” The church in question operates both a K-12 school and a seminary on the premises. It’s pretty tough to argue that they don’t also qualify as an “educational institute” in addition to being a church.

But even though that aspect of it may appear clear to supporters, there are some other nagging questions which seem to be lingering around the subject. Did the authors of the law actually intend for it to apply to churches or did they only mean universities and private (read “charter” type) schools? I’m not sure about the application of the Establishment Clause here but do we ever allow churches to form a police force? And if so, would that be running afoul of the entire concept of the separation of church and state? I’m also getting hung up just a bit on the phrase “to act as a police force” in the wording of the law. Would these be actual police officers with all the rights and privileges under the law which that provides? Or would they be more like private security guards?

We have campus police at colleges all over the country and nobody seems to pay much attention to that. My gut instinct tells me that there wouldn’t be anything all that off putting about a large church complex with schools on the grounds doing the same thing. But I’m sure a well-financed set of lawyers facing off on each side will be old to turn this into a massive food fight.

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