How do you think the GOP-controlled Alabama Senate would respond to a mega mosque asking to form its own armed police force? Keep in mind Alabama is where Republicans pushed for an anti-Sharia amendment to its state’s constitution that easily passed in 2014.
And just imagine what you would see on Fox News, Breitbart.com, and the other media outlets that profit off stoking hate against Muslims if such a request were made by the head of a U.S. mosque? They would be calling this not only an attempt to impose Sharia but also likely claim it’s an attempt to establish “religious morality police” like we see in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.
But when the Briarwood Presbyterian Church, a megachurch in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama, asked for special permission to create our nation’s first ever church-run police force, it sailed right through Alabama’s GOP-dominated Senate on Tuesday. It’s expected that the bill will pass the Republican-controlled House and become law, empowering the Briarwood Church to hire actual police officers in the name of the church.
The Briarwood Church police officers would be required to be certified by the Alabama Peace Officer Training Commission. Consequently, they will be armed and fully empowered as police officers in Alabama, although church officials explained that its “officers would be restricted to the church’s campuses and be able to respond to emergency situations while coordinating with local authorities.” No word yet if the church’s police officers would wear large crosses on their uniforms that conjure up Christian crusaders, but since they are church employees that could be part of the uniform.
Why does this 4,100-member church that also operates a school with 2,000 students want its very own police force? The head of the church cited the 2012 horrific Sandy Hook massacre as the primary reason. Of course, there has been no call to revise Alabama gun laws, which currently get an F rating from The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence because they are so dangerously lax.
Will this church-owned and operated police force go beyond secular law and also enforce biblical law, which I call Christian Sharia law? It’s unclear. But I would imagine that Robert Bentley, the former Republican governor of Alabama who resigned earlier this week because of an extramarital affair and crimes connected to its cover up, must hope not. As Bentley has to know, considering he loved to quote Bible verses while a member of the Alabama Legislature to enhance his arguments, the penalty for having an affair with a married woman is that “both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.”
To be clear, the people of this church—just like every person attending any place of worship—has the absolute right to be safe. These are truly scary times. We have seen countless threats lately against Jewish temples and even seen mosques burned to the ground. And in 2015 there was the horrific murder of nine African Americans by white supremacist Dylann Roof at a church in South Carolina, and in 2012 six Sikhs were brutally killed at their Wisconsin temple by another man with ties to white supremacist groups.
But do you think if Muslims in Alabama asked to create their own police force to protect their mosque we would see the GOP members of the Alabama Legislature be as supportive as they are to the Briarwood church? And in reality the Muslims in Alabama have good reason to be concerned for their safety. In February an email was to sent to the head of a mosque in Birmingham with the subject line: “Your one warning.” The email then contained this misspelled threat:
“…MUZLIMS MEXICANS BLACKS WE WILL HUNTED NATION WIDE UNTIL ARE ARE DEAD OR GONE…PLAN TO RUN OR DIE, THIS IS A KINDNESS THAT WE GIVE YOU ALL WARNING, TAKE IT AND GO.”
Thankfully the local police swiftly provided the Muslim community with extra protection.
While GOP politicians are on board with Briarwood church’s push for their own police force, the ACLU believes it’s unconstitutional. A memo drafted by the ACLU contends that “vesting state police powers in a church police force violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.” It adds: “These bills unnecessarily carve out special programs for religious organizations and inextricably intertwine state authority and power with church operations.”
The ACLU has also raised questions about the possible lack of transparency with the church employing its own police force. Will the church cover up crimes that occur at its school or by church employees to protect the reputation of the institution? And some have cited as a cautionary tale the volunteer police force run by the ultra orthodox Jewish community in New York that is currently being investigated for bribery and corruption.
My hope is that if Jews or Muslims needed protection from a threat, the Republicans in Alabama would be just as quick to protect them as they are to help those who attend the Briarwood church. But deep down I worry they won’t be.