Holy heat: Alabama church police force one step closer to being legal

Holy heat: Alabama church police force one step closer to being legal
The Alabama Senate has approved a bill authorizing the Briarwood Presbyterian Church to establish its own police force. Those opposed fear the blessed badges may be more faithful to the Birmingham-based church than the rule of law.

On Tuesday, Alabama’s upper legislative chamber voted 24-4 to pass Senate Bill 193, which some police experts consider historic, the Associated Press reported. The 4,000-congregant Briarwood Presbyterian Church may form its own law enforcement department if the proposed legislation becomes law, and a similar, more far-reaching version is anticipated to come to the Alabama House on Tuesday.

Some private universities in the state have their own police force, but a private church stretches the thin blue line too far, critics believe.

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“It's our view this would plainly be unconstitutional,” Randall Marshall, the American Civil Liberties Union acting executive director, told NBC News last month.

Marshall argued the bill violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause in a memo to legislators.

The church, which also runs a school, feels under increased threat since recent shootings, however.

“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 March statement, NBC News reported.

The church police would be certified after completing a program with state law enforcement.

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In the House, the Alabama Church Protection Act, or HB36, goes even further, allowing other churches to hire armed security guards, who would then be given legal immunity if they shoot someone in the line of duty, as other police are.