The Alabama Senate has voted to allow a church to create its own police force in an almost unanimous vote.
Lawmakers in the Senate voted 24-4 to pass Senate Bill 193, which would allow Briarwood Presbyterian Church in suburban Birmingham to create its own department of law enforcement, the Associated Press reported.
The church said it needs a police force to keep its 4,100 member church, including a K-12 school and a theological seminary with 2,000 students and teachers, safe.
“The sole purpose of this proposed legislation is to provide a safe environment for the church, its members, students and guests,” church administrator Matt Moore told NBC News.
Opponents of the legislation argue that the church could use its own police force to cover up crimes, while some have questioned the bill’s constitutionality because it blurs the line between separation of church and state.
“Vesting state police powers in a church police force violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” ACLU Alabama’s acting executive director, Randall Marshall, wrote in a memo to the legislature. “These bills unnecessarily carve out special programs for religious organizations and inextricably intertwine state authority and power with church operations.”
The state of Alabama has allowed some private universities to have a police force but never a church or a non-school entity.
Police experts say such a police force would be the first to exist in the United States.
The bill now moves to the House for consideration.