The Freedom From Religion Foundation is vehemently opposing a pending Alabama bill that will allow a church to set up its own police force.
The Alabama Senate very recently passed SB 193, which permits Briarwood Presbyterian Church to form a police squad. The bill is now before the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee.
The bill is unwise, unconstitutional, and unnecessary, FFRF asserts. The church hires off-duty police officers "all the time," by its own admission, but contends it "would be so much easier to have someone on staff." It might be marginally easier on the church, but it is not wise or constitutionally permissible.
And the Alabama Legislature does not appear to have thought through all the implications of the bill. What happens when other churches want police forces? And what about when a mosque asks for a police force — a likelihood, given the rise of bias crimes against Muslims? The state cannot play favorites between religious sects.
Plus, the proposed law puts police officers on this church force in an impossible situation, with divided loyalties. They can only be empowered to uphold and enforce our secular law, but their employer promotes religious law. What happens, as is inevitable, when the two clash? For the officers, the temptation to "enforce the legal observation of [religion] by law" will be great. This was, as James Madison noted in the debate to propose what would become the First Amendment, one of the principle evils that the amendment guards against.
Incidentally, the church's Senior Pastor Harry Reeder III has answered some of these questions. For him, God's decree is supreme and must be obeyed even if this means contravening secular law, as he tweeted in 2012. Reeder is strongly against gay marriage and women serving in military combat units. Will the proposed law allow him and his church to discriminate against officers hired to uphold secular principles?
There are historical and modern analogs for religious police forces, but none inspire public confidence and all undermine American values. There are currently 17 countries with such police forces worldwide, according to Pew Research. The list — not one Alabama ought to join — includes Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Sudan. None of these modern forces is Christian, but the pages of history are stained with the blood of those whom Christian and other religious zealots have beaten, tortured and killed in the name of enforcing their religious law.
"Our Founders sought to move away from this violence by relegating government and religion to separate spheres," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel writes to Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Allen Treadaway and other members of the committee. "Authorizing a church police force is precisely the unconstitutional unification of religious zeal and secular power they sought to avoid."
Briarwood claims in its press release: "Ultimately, the church proclaims that its trust is in the Lord of Glory who sovereignly cares and provides for His people." If that is so, the church should trust in its god and leave law enforcement to our secular government.
The pending bill, SB 193, was apparently written by Briarwood's lawyer and is completely ill-conceived. FFRF strongly urges the Alabama House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee to vote it down.
"The Alabama Statehouse is hurtling down an extremely slippery slope," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "A constitutional wreck is in the offing unless it changes course."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a state/church watchdog, has more than 27,000 members and chapters all over the country, including many members and a state chapter in Alabama.
Screenshot via ABC 33/40