An Alabama Senate committee has approved a bill that would allow Briarwood Presbyterian Church to have its own police force.
The proposal, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, will now move to the Alabama Senate. A similar bill was approved by a House committee, but it has not yet gotten a floor vote.
The Birmingham-area congregation of 4,000 wanted its own police department to protect its church and school, according to The Associated Press.
The state has allowed a few private universities to have their own police force but never a church or non-school entity.
Opponents of the proposal expressed their worries that the church would cover up crimes, while senators raised concerns about the accountability of the police force.
"I don't want this to be a little secret group that, when something happens, it gets covered up," said Sen. Rodger Smitherman (D-Birmingham).
A similar proposal was passed last year, but it got to the governor late and was never signed, according to Briarwood attorney Eric Johnston, who drafted the bill.
He said he expects both the House and the Senate to approve the proposal and believes Gov. Robert Bentley will sign it into law.
"We've got over 30,000 events a year that take place at Briarwood - going on all day, all night, at the school, at the church, at the seminary," Johnston said.
"We have to hire policemen all the time. It would be so much easier to have someone on staff," he added.
Johnston further noted that the church currently hires off-duty police officers from area police departments, but officers are not always available.
"They get short-handed. We have one guy that we have to have almost full-time supervising security," he said.
Last month, church administrator Matt Moore issued a statement citing Code 16-22-1 of Alabama law, which he claimed allows for the employment of one or more persons to act as police officers at colleges and other private educational institutions. "The church seeks to mirror that provision," the statement declared.
The statement further noted that the personnel that will be employed by the church when it obtains legislative permission will meet all requirements and be certified by the Alabama Peace Officer Training Commission.