Is it an idea whose time has come, or a blatant violation of the separation of church and state?
Social media has been buzzing over a megachurch in Alabama that wants lawmakers to let it create its own police department to protect its members.
In the Tampa Bay area, Idlewild Baptist puts the mega in mega churches with nearly 14,000 members.
“People need to be safe. They need to be secure,” said Idlewild Minister and Administrator Ken Smith. Smith describes a Sunday afternoon at Idlewild as, “A small town, or a small community many ways. You know, it's a great fellowship of believers, but there's dynamics with a large church.”
Those dynamics include safety and security.
So it's understandable why Idlewild, and other huge places of worship around the country, are keeping an eye on Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Citing Sandy Hook and shootings at churches around the country, Briarwood wants permission from Alabama state lawmakers to form its own police department. Sworn officers. Trained. Full time. With full legal authority.
Most megachurches, including Idlewild, use off-duty sheriff’s deputies or police officers to provide security and control traffic. And for now, Briarwood does the same.
But Briarwood says it wants officers who know the people at its church and can respond faster in an emergency.
“We do hire off duty cops and they do fill in here and there but it’s inconsistent. It is different people,” said Briarwood Church member Eric Johnston, who helped draft the church’s proposal.
While no one questions the need for security at houses of worship, critics are questioning whether lawmakers would so readily allow a mosque or synagogue to have its own police force.
There is also the question of the separation of church and state.
Alabama’s ACLU chapter is already calling the idea patently unconstitutional, “In that, it establishes a singular religion that is favored above all others in the state of Alabama - and it gives them the authority of state government,” said ACLU spokesman Randall Marshall.
Proponents say it's not that different from airports or college campuses having their own police forces, since mega-churches also act like small cities.
But churches like Idlewild say they would just a soon stick to prayer, and leave policing to the police.
“We’ve had a wonderful relationship over the years with the sheriff’s office,” said Smith, “And, we see no need to even attempt to approach the level of safety and security in training that they bring to us by doing something ourselves.”
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