Rules Are for Schmucks: Armed and Pious Alabama Church Seeks Its Own Police Force

Briarwood Presbyterian Church in suburban Birmingham, Alabama, is pressing for a bill in the current session of the Alabama legislature to give itself something no other church in America has (yet): its own official government-sponsored police force.

A bill to accomplish this actually cleared the legislature last year without attracting much attention, but Gov. Robert Bentley didn’t sign it. While Bentley gave no reason why, this was at the height of the seventy-four-year-old governor’s sex scandal that nearly drove him from office; perhaps he was miffed at the Briarwood leadership for being insufficiently supportive. Anyway, the bill is back again, and Briarwood’s attorney predicts the governor will sign it this time (unless he gets impeached, which is still possible).

The idea of religious police conjures visions of Saudi Arabia and other Muslim tyrannies, where goons roam the streets and break into private homes, terrorizing folks suspected of having too much fun. In fairness, that’s probably not what the Briarwood folks have in mind. Briarwood is in fact a large operation, with 4,000 members, 2,000 students in its K-12 schools, and even its own radio station. People who go there deserve to be protected—as the congregants at Emanuel African Methodist were not when Dylann Roof gunned them down. Briarwood, like many other churches, sports teams, concert venues, etc., routinely hires off-duty police officers to provide that protection.

Now they’ve decided that this arrangement isn’t ideal because of scheduling headaches, and they seem on the verge of landing their own official police force. Is this really so terrible? After all, the object is simply to patrol Briarwood’s campuses, not the neighboring communities. And as Briarwood repeatedly points out, the bill is modeled on language already in the Alabama statutes (and those of many other states) permitting colleges to maintain their own official police forces—and many such colleges are much smaller than Briarwood. If a college can have its own police, then why not a church?

Two reasons:

First, the student population a college police force is intended to control (and to protect) is qualitatively different from the rest of the population. To avoid expending too many syllables on this difference: they’re idiots. At least I was. Idiots, though, with a decent chance of becoming productive citizens, if they can survive the ugly combination of hormones, inexperience, and academic and financial pressure that make college such a crucible. From a policing standpoint, the mix of firmness, patience, and simply knowing what to look for is different on a college campus than it is in the community at large. We’ve had many decades now of experience with separate college police forces, and I’m aware of no great clamor to do away with them.

The population that attends a large church, though, is much more representative of the general community than a college is. So the special reasons to permit college police forces do not apply to Briarwood.

The much bigger reason, though, is that colleges do not have millennia of history of trying their utmost to assert supremacy over civil government, in every way imaginable. Organized religion does. From Euthyphro through Augustine’s “City of God” through the Jesuit assassinations through the Ayatollah Khomeini through today’s Christian right, men (mostly) who claimed special knowledge of what God wants us to do have tried, with varying levels of success, to exercise power over those who simply think things through and try to reach the sensible answer based on the evidence at hand. The major political effect of the Enlightenment was to shift power—i.e., the legitimate monopoly of violence—away from the God experts, and toward the rationalists.

In other words, not to have church-controlled police.

Do I think that letting Briarwood have its own police force, like many colleges do, will undo the Enlightenment? No. But consider:

  • Churches are generally exempt from civil rights laws, and free to discriminate as they will in hiring. Presumably, the new Briarwood police force can consist solely of straight white male Protestants, and there will be nothing anyone can do about it.
  • Once Briarwood gets its nose under the tent, other churches will demand the same privilege, on equal protection grounds. And they’ll be right. What will our so-called president say when a mosque in Dearborn, Michigan, gets its own armed police force? Will the Satanic Temple be far behind? Will Pastafarian police wear colanders on their heads?
  • Curiously, the bill was first introduced shortly after a secular police drug bust at Briarwood’s high school. Is part of the idea here to make sure that prominent church officials, contributors, and their offspring don’t get needlessly embarrassed by cops who don’t know how important they are? The same thing can and does happen, of course, with a secular police department. But there is a big difference when government civil service and whistleblower protections are in place, which they won’t be here. And an even bigger difference when the ultimate boss, e.g. the mayor, is accountable to an electorate, versus a pastor, rabbi, or imam, who is not. Last year’s Academy Award winner, Spotlight, showed the cover-up evil that can arise when a church is merely politically influential. If the church itself hires and fires its own police, isn’t the potential even greater?

All good questions, but still not the big one. The longer I researched this, the more I kept coming back to one obvious, almost stupid question: Why the heck can’t they just hire a private security firm like the entire rest of the American economy does when they want more protection than cash-strapped police departments can provide? Office buildings, factories, shopping centers—private security is ubiquitous. (Even Paul Blart: Mall Cop prevailed in the end!) According to a Department of Justice website, private security is a hundred billion-dollar industry, employing twice as many guards as there are government police officers. If the church is having trouble scheduling enough off-duty cops to meet their needs, why not just hire a private firm?

The puzzle becomes more baffling when you understand that Briarwood is a dyed-in-the-wool Christian right outfit, a movement that never tires of championing the virtues of capitalist free enterprise over pointy-headed government bureaucrats. What’s wrong with a free enterprise solution here?

I can think of only two reasons, neither of them comforting. First, there is at least a slight difference in the legal standards governing the conduct of “real” police vs. that of security guards. Something called the “qualified immunity doctrine” gives police at least a little more slack if they make errors of judgment in stressful situations than a private security guard would have. Some thoughtful commentators say we should do away with qualified immunity altogether. I don’t know if I’m willing to go that far—I haven’t really studied it. I am quite certain, though, that if anybody is going to get qualified immunity, that person needs to be ultimately accountable to an elected official, not to someone who claims authority from God.

That’s all a little technical, and I doubt whether it weighed heavily in their decision to press for legislation. The second possible reason is more sinister: they’re doing it because they can. Maybe they haven’t thought through every nuance of exactly how having their own private police force can aggrandize the church’s influence, or laid out a master plan for building from a hall monitor to a Saudi-style Gestapo. But having your own loyal armed force at your beck and call, approved by the state, has got to create more opportunities yet unimagined for power growth than just hiring a guard firm where you’re one of a thousand clients. Briarwood clearly has plenty of muscle in the legislature—why not use it, and see where it leads?

That’s the most plausible answer I can come up with. Regardless, I hope they don’t get away with it.