Do Churches Need their own Police?

Anthony Izaguirre:

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Briarwood Presbyterian Church already has more than 4,000 members, two private schools and its own radio station. And if administrators have their way, the wealthy congregation could soon add something that no other American church has: its own police force.

With a membership larger than many small towns, Briarwood has asked the state Legislature for permission to set up a private law enforcement department to watch over its flock and schools. The bill comes at a time when places of worship around the country are stepping up security, but a church-only police force raises constitutional questions that are ripe for a legal challenge. And opponents worry crimes could be covered up by the church.

Experts believe a church with its own police department would be unprecedented in the U.S.

“I’ve never even heard of this,” said Heath Grant, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “From the perspective of security, churches usually have relationships with the local police departments. I don’t know why that wouldn’t be sufficient.”

The Birmingham church hires off-duty police officers from nearby jurisdictions to cover its events, but it says there often are not enough officers available to help. Church officials also worry about mass shootings, such as the attacks at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut and the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina.

The bill was introduced by Republican Rep. Arnold Mooney, whose wife and daughter work at Briarwood Christian School. All three of his children graduated from Briarwood schools.

“Officer presence is the No. 1 line of defense,” he said in an email.

Twenty-one of Mooney’s colleagues in the Republican-controlled House support his bill, which passed the Legislature last year but was not signed into law by Gov. Robert Bentley. The governor did not give a reason for not acting on the proposal in 2016 and has given no indication what he will do this year.

Debate in the House is expected before the session ends in May.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.