MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama Senate has voted to allow a church to form its own police force.
Lawmakers on Tuesday voted 24-4 to allow Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham to establish a law enforcement department.
The church says it needs its own police officers to keep its school as well as its more than 4,000 person congregation safe.
Critics of the bill argue that a police department that reports to church officials could be used to cover up crimes.
The state has given a few private universities the authority to have a police force, but never a church or non-school entity.
Police experts have said such a police department would be unprecedented in the U.S.
A similar bill is also scheduled to be debated in the House on Tuesday. In the House, the Alabama Church Protection Act, or HB36, goes even further, allowing other churches to hire armed security guards, who would then be given legal immunity if they shoot someone in the line of duty, as other police are.
“It’s our view this would plainly be unconstitutional,” Randall Marshall, the American Civil Liberties Union acting executive director, told NBC News last month.
Marshall argued the bill violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause in a memo to legislators.
The church, which also runs a school, feels under increased threat since recent shootings, however.
“After the shooting at Sandy Hook and in the wake of similar assaults at churches and schools, Briarwood recognized the need to provide qualified first responders to coordinate with local law enforcement,” church administrator Matt Moore said in a March statement, NBC News reported.
The church police would be certified after completing a program with state law enforcement.