Donald Trump’s election didn’t just empower the alt-right troops with their #MAGA hats and Pepe the Frog avatars. The religious right is also more quietly making moves to consolidate power on a state and local level, aided by Trump’s promises to appoint conservative-friendly judges and to strike down legal limits on church-based politicking.
But even in the current environment, it’s startling to learn that the Alabama legislature is considering a bill to give a Birmingham-based church its own police force. The bill, SB 193, would specifically authorize the Briarwood Presbyterian Church, which has more than 4,000 members, to hire its own police force that would be “invested with all of the powers of law enforcement officers in this state.”
“The sole purpose of this proposed legislation is to provide a safe environment for the church, its members, students and guests,” the church said in a memo sent to Salon after requests for comment. The memo also mentions the Sandy Hook shooting, claiming that they need “qualified first responders” in case such a thing would happen to them.
This particular church does not sit in some kind of lawless territory without access to the same law enforcement services available to other Alabama citizens. As NBC News notes, the church is serviced by the sheriff’s departments in both Jefferson County and Shelby County.
“This proposed legislation seems like a clear violation of church-state separation, and a clear violation of the Constitution,” said Alex Luchenitser, the associate director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in a phone call. “Government bodies must not delegate official power to religious entities.”
Briarwood Presbyterian Church presents its request as a security measure, but, as Luchenitser notes, the church is already allowed by law to hire private security guards if it wishes. He worried that police who are invested with state powers but ultimately answerable to the religious institution that hired them could lead to all sorts of legal problems.
Having police that work directly for a church, he argued, could lead those police to feel they are there to “enforce the religious beliefs of this particular church.”
It’s not an idle concern. As Luchenitser noted, religious conservatives have gotten creative in recent years, in search of extra-governmental power to force obedience to their religious edicts on as many people as they can grab.
“The Christian right is pushing to allow businesses to discriminate against customers based on religious beliefs,” he pointed out, noting the various lawsuits from Christians who disapprove of legal same-sex marriage and are trying to carve out special rights to discriminate against couples whom the law no longer discriminates against.
Digging around the website for Briarwood Presbyterian Church reveals an authoritarian, theocratic bent. The pastor, Harry Reeder, puts out a regular podcast where he frequently defends Donald Trump and pushes back against the concept of secularism.
“There is no sacred-secular split in life,” Reeder argued in a March 21 podcast. “Everything in life comes under the sovereign claims of Christ.”
“That judgment if not by Divine edict is inevitable by Divinely ordained consequences for those who engage in high-handed rebellion against God’s law,” Reeder wrote in a blog post responding to the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage across the country. “Those nations who knowingly break God’s law will inevitably be broken by God’s law.”