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National

Alabama Set To Allow Church To Create Its Own Police Force

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A bill in the Alabama Legislature would let a church in suburban Birmingham make an unprecedented move - establish its own police force. Critics say the bill isn't constitutional and vow to fight it. From member station WBHM in Birmingham, Andrew Yeager reports.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Hosanna to the king of kings, lift your voice and praise and sing.

ANDREW YEAGER, BYLINE: Briarwood Presbyterian Church is not your sleepy neighborhood church in the corner. There's a steeple on the church building, sure, but it has a K-through-12 school, a seminary and about 4,000 congregants. On a recent Sunday, Pastor-teacher Harry Reeder read through a list of new members.

HARRY REEDER: Michael Boyd, Sam Boyd, Seth Boyd, Steven Boyd. And any Boyds in Birmingham that we've left out, just come on up. This is your chance.

YEAGER: It's such a big operation, church leaders say, that they need to employ their own police officers. A Briarwood spokesman would not grant an interview, but in a statement, he says after the 2012 Sandy Hook school shootings, they wanted their own force for the security of the congregation, students and guests. State Senator Jabo Waggoner is a sponsor of the bill which has passed the Senate. He says the church already uses private security, but Briarwood leaders asked for more.

JABO WAGGONER: It was their decision. And if they wanted to have their own police force, you know, I don't see the reason why they can't. It's not unusual.

YEAGER: Waggoner likens it to a police force on a college campus. The bill does say officers would only have jurisdiction on church property. Critics suggest the church could cover up crimes, but Randall Marshall sees constitutional problems with the bill. He's the legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama. He says the bill violates the First Amendment by taking a government service - law enforcement - and putting it in the hands of a religious institution.

RANDALL MARSHALL: Giving a church the power to arrest people, the power to use varying levels of force in effecting those arrests and deciding who to arrest and for what crimes.

YEAGER: But Samford University law professor John Carroll says he doesn't believe the proposal is inherently unconstitutional, although he does call it novel. He points out some religiously-affiliated colleges and universities around the country have their own police departments. Think Brigham Young University or Notre Dame.

JOHN CARROLL: These are sworn law enforcement officers trained by the state. So I think in all senses, they are police officers just like police officers that work the beat in Birmingham.

YEAGER: Carroll adds he doesn't see a proliferation of other churches trying to do this simply because it's expensive. If the bill does become law, opponents vow to take it to court. That could add new wrinkles to the constitutional lines between church and state. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Yeager in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF D NUMBERS' "XYLEM UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.