An Alabama megachurch with deep anti-choice ties has moved closer to forming its own police force after receiving the Alabama state senate’s blessing this week.
The bill that cruised through the Republican-held state senate would allow Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham to hire its own police, raising concerns among constitutional experts and reproductive justice advocates alike.
“It leaves me to wonder things like, if church members from this church decide to go protest outside of a clinic, does their police force come with them?” Danielle Hurd, Alabama state organizer with Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity (URGE), told Rewire in an interview.
Both the church and the author of the legislation, A. Eric Johnston, have deep ties to the anti-choice movement. Johnston, a lawyer and a member of the church, has drafted numerous anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ bills in Alabama’s legislature, including the state’s 1998 constitutional amendment allowing people and businesses to object to a wide range of laws in the name of religious freedom. Johnston also authored a ban on “foreign law” that was widely seen as targeting Sharia law and Muslims. It passed as a constitutional amendment in 2014.
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The pastor emeritus of the church seeking the police force, Frank Barker Jr., led the opening prayer at the Birmingham March for Life in January, online records show. The church’s knitting group makes booties for a local crisis pregnancy center, or fake clinic, Sav-A-Life, which is listed alongside other anti-choice groups as a ministry partner in the church’s visitor’s brochure. The church’s current pastor, Harry Reeder, has a podcast where he frequently defends Donald Trump, and has argued there is “no sacred-secular split in life,” as Amanda Marcotte noted for Salon.
If Briarwood is allowed to hire its own police, a key concern for legal experts is whether the officers would enforce the religious dictates of the church, which has more than 4,000 members.
“Are these police going to be looking at whether women’s skirts are too short, for example?” Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Rewire.
Johnston, the bill’s author, dismissed those concerns in an interview with Rewire.
“We don’t live in a theocracy, and we’re not Iran where they do have religious police, and we’re not ISIS where they do have religious police,” Johnston said. “Briarwood’s a Presbyterian Church, and just like Methodists and other Presbyterians and Baptists and so forth they have doctrine, but they don’t have rules that are enforced by force.”
When Rewire pressed Johnston to explain how, exactly, a police force that answers to the leadership of a church is not a religious police force, Johnston said the officers would not be imbued with the authority to direct what teachers can say in Sunday school, for example.
“All they will be charged with is protecting the church from crimes and criminal acts,” he said.
The legislation confines the church police officers’ authority to “the campuses and properties of Briarwood Presbyterian Church,” and requires them to be certified by the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission. Johnston said the officers would be “accountable to the board of directors of the church corporation.” If they arrested someone, they would turn that person over to law enforcement from that jurisdiction, who would take the person to the appropriate jail, he said.
While some U.S. universities and colleges, including faith-based ones, have their own police officers, the idea of a church forming one is rare. NPR, in its updated report on the bill, noted examples of church police forces in the United States, including the Washington National Cathedral Police and a police force in the borderlands between Arizona and Utah that has been accused by the U.S. Department of Justice of acting as an arm of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Luchenitser said the Alabama bill would violate the constitutional separation of church and state by vesting a religious institution with governmental powers. He’s concerned that the bill applies only to Briarwood.
“By singling out a particular church for this special benefit, the state legislature is sending a message that it approves and favors the particular religious beliefs of this particular church,” Luchenitser said.
Briarwood is not just a church; according to Johnston, it sprawls across hundreds of acres, has two campuses, a K-12 school and a seminary, and hosts about 36,000 events per year. Local critics have speculated that Briarwood wants to avoid outside police scrutiny following a drug investigation at the school in 2015. Johnston denies this, saying the church simply wants to hire officers who can communicate directly with law enforcement by radio in the event of an attack.
“Churches are recognized as soft targets these days for terrorists and other acts, and after the Sandy Hook event in Connecticut, the church began to consider what it could do to protect itself,” Johnston told Rewire.
But Johnston’s resume speaks to a wider ideological agenda that may be at play.
Johnston is head of the Southeast Law Institute, which has long opposed abortion and LGBTQ rights and pushed to expand Christian doctrine into public life. The institute supported suspended Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore’s quest to display a monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the state judicial building—a crusade that led to Moore’s first of two ousters from his post in 2003.
“The legal implications of a bill like this are very troubling,” said Jessica Mason Pieklo, vice president of law and the courts at Rewire. “We’ve already seen conservatives launch religious objections to having to comply with the Affordable Care Act and argue they have the right to deny service at places like restaurants to LGBTQ people. Granting police power to religious institutions is in effect erasing the separation from church and state by granting the church the power to enforce religious doctrine by force if necessary.”
“And if one church gets police power, why shouldn’t they all? That’s the next step in this argument.”
The legislation has passed both legislative chambers in Alabama at least once before, but Gov. Robert Bentley (R) did not sign it. Since Bentley resigned this week after pleading guilty to misdemeanor campaign-finance charges amid a sex scandal, the legislation, if it passes the Alabama house, would head to the desk of his former lieutenant governor, Gov. Kay Ivey (R).
While Johnston claims the church needs police for security, he declined to comment on whether the church has received any threats. Church administrator Matthew Moore, who did not respond to Rewire’s requests for comment, acknowledged to the Huffington Post that the church has never been attacked or received direct threats.
That’s in contrast to mosques in Alabama, which have reported break-ins and threats in the past few months alone, including an email sent to the Birmingham Islamic Society threatening to hunt “Muzlims Mexicans Blacks [sic]” until they “are dead or gone.”
Johnston said he would not have a problem, in principle, with a mosque seeking its own police force.
“I don’t have a problem with them coming forward and asking for it,” he told Rewire. “Whether they would ultimately be able to do it is not for me to make that decision.”
Birmingham is known for another attack against a house of worship–the racist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four girls in 1963, part of a sustained campaign of terror by white supremacists in Alabama and elsewhere, which some note stands in stark contrast to the environment Briarwood church faces today.
“I just don’t think that there is that sort of threat, that sort of constant presence of violence with this church that would justify the sort of fear, the sort of wariness, that would lead you to believe that you need police protection,” Danielle Hurd of URGE told Rewire.
Then there was the 1998 bombing of a Birmingham abortion clinic by anti-choice extremist Eric Rudolph, which maimed a nurse and killed a Birmingham police officer who was a part-time security guard at the clinic.
“If we’re speaking just on the pro-choice/anti-choice angle—the pro-choice folks aren’t the people bombing,” Hurd noted.
Alabama’s abortion clinics face the constant presence of anti-choice demonstrators. On the day Rewire interviewed Mia Raven, who volunteers at Reproductive Health Services in Montgomery, she had to shoo away an anti-choice activist who trespassed into the clinic’s parking lot. Three days earlier, a security system alerted her that someone was lurking around outside the P.O.W.E.R. House, a building next to the clinic used by pro-choice activists as an organizing space. The intruder left a Bible and religious booklet on a table on the porch. Raven recalled sitting on the steps of that same house about a year and a half ago as an anti-choice protester standing about ten feet away threatened to rip down the building’s rainbow and uterus flags, kill Raven, and burn the house down.
She finds the double standard evident in Briarwood’s push for its own police force galling.
“If we were to say OK, we want to come up with a reproductive health services police department, or whatever, they would literally laugh me out of the state house,” Raven told Rewire.
When asked about this idea, Johnston, whose institute has defended anti-choice demonstrators who protest outside abortion clinics, told Rewire he doesn’t think the clinics need their own police force, because they don’t serve the same volume of people as the church, and they are protected by federal laws.
“They’ve got adequate protection,” Johnston said. “If they came and said, ‘We want a policeman,’ I’d say, ‘You know, you want a policeman, why would you want to do that?’ It just doesn’t make sense, practically speaking.”