MilitiaWatch
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MilitiaWatch

Briarwood’s Militia and Canary Alabama: A Test Case for Church-Security Divide

Towards the end of April, the Alabama legislature passed a bill that would allow AL churches to create their own police forces. The police forces would then be trained by a state-commissioned police safety organization. These units eerily resemble church militias and have been reported by the media as such.

This “Church Militia Bill” is formally known as House Bill 36 (HB36), the Alabama Church Protection Act. The bill authorizes churches to establish security programs in which they have the liberty to designate members of security to carry firearms and receive training from the Alabama Peace Officers’ Training Commission.

Promotional material from Briarwood Presbyterian Church featuring Pastor Reeder

HB36 was prompted by concerns from Briarwood Presbyterian Church, a large church in Birmingham, Alabama. The church is notorious for delving into politics with a very conservative outlook. The lead pastor of Briarwood, Harry Reeder, engages his congregation on his extremely active Twitter account as well as from the pulpit. He drafts near-daily briefings to guide his congregation and pays particular attention to current politics and Supreme Court cases.

Screenshot of A. Eric Johnston’s website

HB36 was put forward by Lynn Greer, a Republican representative, though the text of the bill was drafted by A. Eric Johnston, an Alabama attorney. Johnston is publicly a member of several pro-life advocacy organizations and is extremely conservative.

This all goes to show that HB36 was voted on by representatives of a conservative-led Alabama House, encouraged to be put in place by a very conservative and politically-driven church, and drafted by a religiously and politically conservative lawyer with affiliations to advocacy groups across the state. As strange as the content of the bill might appear, it is the product of political, religious, and legal representatives working together at all levels to pass it.

The establishment of community police forces is not necessarily a bad thing, but those aligned with religious or political institutions cause justifiable worry. This move is wholly unprecedented, so just as much of contemporary politics is breeching new ground, so too are concerns over security and the division of church and state-provided-security.

There are, of course, a number of causes that result in bills of the sort that was passed in Alabama this April, and understanding the relationship between other beliefs and ensuing policy is important to unpacking root drives towards these bills.

Lynn Greer, the Republican sponsor of HB36

In the first 4 months of 2017, a number of bills passed through Alabama’s legislature. These include HB36, the “Church Militia Bill”, allowing church security forces; HB98, the “Abortion Bill”, establishing Alabama as a “right to life” state should Roe v. Wade be overturned; HB95, the “HC Moral Exemption”, which would allow healthcare providers to deny certain services based on moral or religious views; and HB96, the “Assisted Suicide Ban”, which made doctor-assisted suicide for terminally-ill patients illegal.

I took Representative votes on HB36, HB98, HB95, and HB96, combined them into a spreadsheet (below), and attributed a score to each Representative (wherein a “YEA” vote on any of these bills adds a point and a “NAY” vote removes a point; “PASS” and “ABSENT” votes meant no change to the score).

Table 1 — Chart of political scores regarding 2017 House votes, unordered

The average score came to a little bit below +2, meaning that the mean of support for these policies was generally in favor of the bills (this makes sense, since all passed at least the Alabama House). However, the reason for creating these scores isn’t to test average views, but instead to see how linked views are or examine the extremity of views of the Alabama House.

In order to better understand that, I reordered the table to instead show scores from highest to lowest (below).

Table 2 — Chart of political scores regarding 2017 House votes, ordered

This chart is a little bit more descriptive because it shows that over half of Representatives (57/104, ~55%) had a score of at least +3. And only a fraction of Representatives (10/104, ~10%) had a score of -3 or lower.

This is, of course, an imperfect test. However, it does indicate the extremely conservative nature of the Alabama House of Representatives, especially on issues that have a religious argument to be made over them. Many of these bills come not only from a place of politics, but from a place of religion and law, for which HB36 provides a single model.

The conclusions for militia involvement indicate a closing space between church and security force, even from a state-sanctioned perspective. There are a number of different religiously-motivated militias active in the US, but the security forces attached to Briarwood and similar Alabama churches will set new precedents for security forces aligned directly with political churches. The permission from and direct coordination with the state is something wholly new, especially since this sort of security force is not technically covered under Constitutional militia law.

For this sort of development, Alabama is likely just the canary in the coal mine. Since 2009, conservative party representatives have been increasingly replaced by more right-wing challengers aligned with the TEA Party or other far-right movements. These sort of bills that blur distinctions between church and security force may be more likely now than they’ve ever been, with Alabama only providing the first case.

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