Alabama Church Police • SCOTUS Religious Liberty Case • Potential Johnson Amendment Repeal: News Roundup
This week’s headlines that affect churches and church leaders.
Alabama Church Police • SCOTUS Religious Liberty Case • Potential Johnson Amendment Repeal: News Roundup
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Alabama Senate Approves Church Police Officer Legislation. “A large church in Alabama is one step closer to creating its own police force, a move that seems to be without precedent in the US. The state's Senate has approved legislation that would give church police officers the same powers other law enforcement officers have in Alabama. After being approved by Alabama's Senate on a 24-4 vote, the bill now heads to the state House of Representatives, where an identical bill was sent to the Public Safety and Homeland Security committee in February. Both chambers’ legislation specifically names Briarwood Presbyterian Church, a Birmingham megachurch that ‘says it needs its own police officers to keep its school as well as its more than 4,000 person congregation safe.' . . . Police officers hired by Briarwood Presbyterian would need to be certified by a state standards and training commission, according to the bill, SB193. The officers' authority would be restricted to the church's campuses and properties. The officers would be given ‘all of the duties and invested with all of the powers of law enforcement officers in this state,’ the bill says” (“Church Can Start Its Own Police Force, Alabama Senate Says,” NPR).

Attorney Richard Hammar examines the question of whether churches need security teams in this downloadable resource.

New SCOTUS Justice Neil Gorsuch to Hear Key Religious Liberty Case. “Fresh off a contentious confirmation hearing, Justice Neil Gorsuch will take the bench Monday [April 17] at the Supreme Court for two weeks of oral arguments that include a significant religious liberty case. . . . On Wednesday [April 19], the court will hear arguments in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer. The religious liberty case has the potential of becoming the term's most important case. It was granted shortly before [Justice Antonin] Scalia's death, but the justices held off on setting it for argument, perhaps cognizant that it might need a tie-breaking vote. It involves a daycare facility run by the Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri. The church sought a state grant given to facilities that use recycled tires as a surface for playgrounds to improve safety. Missouri awarded the grants to other nonprofits, but said that the daycare facility was ineligible because the Missouri Constitution bars funding to churches. Lawyers for the church say the state's action violates the Constitution. If the court rules in favor of the church, it could narrow the separation between church and state. Last week, however, the justices asked parties to address a new development in the case. Missouri Governor Eric Greitens recently announced his administration would reverse course and allow religious organizations to apply for and be eligible for such state grants. . . . Although Greitens said he didn't expect his decision to impact the Supreme Court case, the justices are asking the parties to respond to whether the case is now moot” (“Neil Gorsuch's first full week on the job: Religious liberty, voter ID laws,” CNN Politics).

What has changed—or is changing—in church-state relations? Read a religious liberty law professor's answer to this question.

Johnson Amendment Repeal to Be Included in New Tax Legislation. “As Republicans struggle to craft a sweeping tax package—a process already rife with political land mines—they are preparing to add another volatile element to the mix: a provision that would end a six-decade-old ban on churches and other tax-exempt organizations supporting political candidates. The repeal of the ‘Johnson Amendment’ is being written into tax legislation developed in the House of Representatives, according to aides. President Trump has vowed to ‘totally destroy’ the provision at the behest of evangelical Christians who helped elect him. The inclusion of the repeal in broader tax legislation could bolster its chances. A stand-alone bill would almost certainly face a filibuster in the Senate, where opponents fear the measure would effectively turn churches into super PACs. But the prospects for comprehensive tax reform also remain far from certain, given differences in priorities among House and Senate Republicans and an array of business groups prepared to fight provisions that would hurt them. . . . The measure at issue is named for Lyndon B. Johnson, who introduced it in the Senate in 1954, nine years before he became president. The provision prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Repeal of the amendment has been sought primarily by conservative Christian leaders, who argue that it is used selectively to keep them from speaking out freely in church” (“Trump’s pledge to allow churches to support candidates may be part of tax bill,” The Washington Post).

Read more about the current guidelines governing churches’ political activity, and find out what a repeal of the Johnson Amendment could mean for churches with this blog post.

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