There are more than 18,000 police departments in the United States, spread out in a vast jurisdictional patchwork of federal, state, local, and tribal agencies that stretches from Hawaii to Maine. This month, Alabama could add to their ranks something unprecedented in American history: a police department operated by a church.
In February, Briarwood Presbyterian Church asked the state legislature for legal authority to establish one. The Alabama state Senate approved Senate Bill 193, which would grant the church’s wish, earlier this month, and a House committee approved the measure on Wednesday. While it’s still several steps away from becoming law—the full chamber is expected to consider it next week—the legislation already, and predictably, faces opposition for blurring the lines between church and state.
The Alabama megachurch serves about 4,000 congregants between its two campuses outside Birmingham, which include a seminary and a K-12 school. About 2,000 students attend the school, and to protect them and worshippers, church officials say they need a police department of their own.
Briarwood declined multiple requests for an interview to discuss the bill. In an email, a church administrator provided documents laying out the institution’s rationale. Among the reasons it cited were recent, high-profile mass shootings nationwide, including those targeting schools. Other security measures can help reduce the threat, Briarwood acknowledged, but it argued that research showed the “number one line of defense” is a police presence.