Prickett: Religious Police In America

Ed. Note: Greg Prickett is former police officer and supervisor who went to law school, hung out a shingle, and now practices criminal defense and family law in Fort Worth, Texas. While he was a police officer, he was a police firearms instructor, and routinely taught armed tactics to other officers.

Alabama Governor, Kay Ivey, just signed legislation that will allow a megachurch to form its own police force. The Briarwood Presbyterian Church of Birmingham is a predominantly white church. Birmingham, Alabama is an overwhelmingly African-American community.[i] The police force would work under the guidance of the pastor of the church, and there would be no public accountability, other than to complain to the pastor. According to Pew Research, 17 nations have some form of religious police. The United States, thanks to Alabama, just joined that list. This is an incredibly bad idea.

First, as a private entity there is no right for the public to obtain or inspect records. If you want the police bodycam from an incident, in most states you can fill out a request and obtain a copy after jumping through whatever hoops the State requires. You can’t do that with a police force that is owned and operated by a private entity.

Second, the push for its own police force appears to have started after there were a series of drug arrests at the private high school run by the church. In 2015, a number of students at the Briarwood Christian Academy were expelled following a drug raid by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office.[ii] School Superintendent Barrett Mosbacker refused to comment on the raid, other than in generalities, and the Sheriff’s Office deferred to the church. Mosbacker did eventually send a letter to the parents that included this:

This morning we held a chapel with our high school students. We shared many things with them, including life lessons to be learned from this experience. We also shared a number of biblical responses that should guide our conversations and actions. We also had a good season of prayer for those directly involved, for each other, and for our school.[iii]

Part of the chapel presentation to the students included encouragement for them not to “gossip” about the event, or to talk about it. The church wants to handle church matters within the church, and so it began to lobby for its own police force. It passed the Alabama Senate in 2017, but did not become law, so they tried again this year and succeeded.

You see, while federal law[iv] requires post-secondary educational facilities to make annual public reports about crime and campus security if they participate in the federal financial aid system, there is no comparable law for public and private elementary, middle, and high schools. Although Briarwood sponsors a seminary that purports to issue masters and doctoral degrees, that seminary is not accredited, and it does not allow students to use the federal financial aid system. It therefore doesn’t have to comply with the Clery Act. And the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) which was formed in 1973,[v] has its own procedures for handling issues.

In the recent past, this has included ordering victims of domestic violence to remain with their abusive husbands, firing them from their job when they refuse, and then indicting them in a church court for speaking out about it. The senior pastor of the Briarwood church has been called out for racism[vi] and homophobia[vii] in the past, but Dr. Harry Reeder III would be the ultimate authority over the police officers employed by his church.

Look, I will be the first one to stand up and defend the right of Reeder and his followers to believe whatever they want to believe. I don’t have to agree with their position to do so, they have the same right as any other person to make stupid conclusions and advocate for those positions. What they should not have is a police force, with all of the power of the State, to enforce those views on others.

A similar situation has happened in the recent past, albeit with a few key differences. A religious group, a cult really, took over two towns on the Utah-Arizona border. All the property was owned by the church, and the town officials were only appointed with the permission of the cult leader, Warren Jeffs.[viii] The police in the towns always went to him for instructions, and they exerted the power of the State against dissidents. It took a Justice Department lawsuit to resolve the issue there, where religiously controlled peace officers made false arrests, illegally seized property, and ignored crimes committed on behalf of the cult.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice said it clearly:

No individual in the United States should be treated differently by a town or its police officers because of his or her religion. No religious leaders should be permitted to use the power of sworn law enforcement officers to hide their misdeeds and enforce their decrees.

It should not happen in Alabama, either. The power of a police force is vast. It should be controlled by the government, so that the public has recourse in the event of misconduct. It should never be in the hands of a religious leader.

[i] According to the U.S. Census, as of July 1, 2018, Birmingham was estimated to be 71.6% black, 24.6% white, with the remaining 3.8% being a mix of other races.

[ii] Which was also the law enforcement agency that provides off-duty deputies to Briarwood.

[iii] See https://www.al.com/opinion/2015/05/secrecy_or_sincerity_full_text.html for the full text of the letter.

[iv] Known as the Clery Act.

[v] According to the PCA, due to the liberal tendencies of the Presbyterian Church of the United States (PCUS), but was actually due to PCUS views on allowing blacks and whites to worship together. The PCA was formed at the Briarwood Church.

[vi] He was the keynote speaker for the 2018 Confederate Memorial Day.

[vii] They severed ties with the Boy Scouts over allowing gay children in the organization, and have condemned Disney for portraying gays favorably.

[viii] Jeffs is currently serving a life sentence, plus 20 years, in Texas, for two counts of Aggravated Sexual Assault of a Child.

14 thoughts on “Prickett: Religious Police In America

  1. Tom Moran

    I respect Mr. Prickett’s opinion but he should know that some private institutions are allowed to organize police forces. For example, section 51.212 of the Texas Education Code allows private institutions of higher education to organize police departments whose members are peace officers. The geographical breadth of their authority is fairly limited but on campus, they are cops. The Article 2.121 of the Teas Code of Criminal Procedure allows the Texas Railroad Association can recommend to the Department of Public Safety of up to 250 railroad peace officers employed by railroads. Those officers can do anything any other peace officer can do except issue traffic citations.
    When it comes to religious organizations having police forces, religious based colleges and universities in Texas can have their own police forces. But allowing megachurches to have police departments is simply a new twist on what we’ve had in Texas forever.
    If it were up to me, all peace officers would be employees of government but it isn’t up to me.

    1. SHG Post author

      Putting the establishment clause aside, are your analogies of a church to colleges and railroads sound?

    2. Gregory Prickett

      I’m aware of the fact that private colleges and universities have their own police forces, and I’m not keen on that idea either. In the case of Texas, however, there are some controls on those departments. State law was amended to require that those law enforcement agencies provide the public with copies of their reports and video through the Texas Open Records Act. There is nothing similar in Alabama, where the public cannot even get a copy of a body cam video from its city or county law enforcement agency.

      And yes, there are railroad police. Hell, there are police who exist just to prevent cattle rustling, employed by the Texas & Southwest Cattle Raisers Assn, commissioned as “special Rangers”.

      In my view, all police should be part of the government, but I’m not as worried by the above examples as I am by police under the control of a religious body.

  2. Richard Kopf

    Greg,

    I wonder whether the state law that allowed the church to create its own police department has made the church subject to section 1983 liability for the action’s of the church’s police department because they are acting under color of law. The law of unintended consequences come to mind.

    Anyway, thanks for your post. It is very interesting.

    All the best.

    RGK

        1. Richard Kopf

          SHG,

          Offhand, I would guess the church has become a state actor and therefore subject to 1983 liability when its police beat the crap out of the devil who wanders onto the campus with a sticker on the back bumper of his or her car that declares “God is Dead.” The devil is in the details.

          All the best.

          RGK

            1. Richard Kopf

              My wife thought I was berserk because I was laughing so hard while watching and listening! Wonderful.

              Thanks.

              All the best.

              RGK

  3. Pedantic Grammar Police

    In Kooky California any municipality can create its own police force. In the capital, Sacramento, where I grew up, there must have been 50 different police forces. The UC Davis Medical Center Police were one of the worse; feared throughout the 20-block radius where they patrolled, handing out speeding tickets and pulling people over to search their cars for weed. The Sac State University police frequently appeared in the newspapers for things like beating up female students at crowded intersections and pointing their guns at smart-mouth freshmen. Sacramento was (and probably still is) a circus of unqualified rejects from real police departments, high on the power handed to them by some silly little municipality. Almost anything can become a municipality in California; we even have power company police.

    This sounds even worse.

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