While advocates of civil liberties decry a powerful Alabama politician’s effort to push through a bill that would give a lily-white suburban church its own police force, many are unaware of the church’s long history of troubling race relations.
The Alabama Legislature is now considering Senate Bill 193. If passed, the law would give Briarwood Presbyterian Church the right to establish its own police force, with all the power and authority of any other municipal law-enforcement agency. The megachurch claims that it needs a police force to provide a safe environment for its parishioners, the private school and the Bible college all run by the church.
While national outlets like CNN have pointed to the news blurb as an intriguing local tale that raises interesting questions about the separation of church and state, they fail to uncover the real story: how a powerful man might single-handedly strong-arm the state of Alabama into giving a fundamentalist church with a history of racism and homophobia the authority to create its own little private army.
The 2010 census ranked Birmingham as the fourth-blackest city in America, with an African-American population of nearly 74 percent (pdf). Just southeast of Birmingham is Vestavia Hills, a small suburb that grew when “white families that had economic mobility moved out of Birmingham,” according to Pam King, a history professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The area remains affluent and upwardly mobile, boasting the third-highest median income in the state. The 2010 census says that the suburb is 90 percent white, with only a 3.8 percent black population, making it the seventh-whitest city in the state.
According to AL.com, Briarwood Presbyterian Church averages 2,800 to 3,600 worshippers per week, making it one of the three biggest churches in Alabama. The church also has Briarwood Christian School, a private K-12 institution, with an enrollment of 1,875 students, and a theological seminary. The church is presented as an all-American house of worship, but at its roots, Briarwood Presbyterian has right-wing, fringe beliefs that border on frightening.
Briarwood Presbyterian is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America. When you research the history of the PCA, you find that almost every source says that the main impetus for the church’s split from the greater Presbyterian organization was the Northern churches’ willingness to integrate, as explained by the Colorado Springs Gazette:
When the denomination called for open churches that did not bar blacks [... t]his was seen as a sign that the denomination was departing from true Christianity. For segregationist Presbyterians in Mississippi and elsewhere, any moderate stance on integration was a sign that liberalism was taking over the church.
In response, segregationist Presbyterians began leaving the denomination. Some left officially. Others started movements [within] the denomination. They openly defied the denomination by refusing to allow blacks to worship in their churches or by firing pastors who wanted to do so.
So those churches banded together to form the PCA. While this might sound like a pre-Civil War origin story, this did not take place in the antebellum South—this was 1973. And where did those churches meet to form this union of segregationist places of worship? PCA’s website proudly explains its history:
In December 1973, delegates, representing some 260 congregations with a combined communicant membership of over 41,000 that had left the PCUS, gathered at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and organized the National Presbyterian Church, which later became the Presbyterian Church in America.
Yes, the home place of a sect of fundamentalist segregationists is about to get its own army.
What Briarwood Believes
If you begin looking into Briarwood’s doctrine, one of the recurring phrases you are sure to hear is the phrase “the inerrancy of God’s Scripture.” It is repeated often. In a sermon from Briarwood’s website (yes, I actually listened to a sermon) entitled “Practical Encouragement for Christians in a Time of Cultural Transitions Part 2” (no, I did not listen to part 1), Ligon Duncan teaches the congregation how to react when a loved one questions them about the church’s stance on discriminating based on gender, sex and marriage. “Don’t panic. Be in the mode to persuade,” he explains. He goes on to break down how to tell teenagers why a literal interpretation of the Scriptures explains everything. Unlike many Christian organizations, the PCA and Briarwood Presbyterian are not afraid to express their bold, ultraconservative beliefs proudly.
In 2012, at a PCA General Assembly, Briarwood’s Tom Leopard condemned Disney for its views on homosexuality. In 2013 Briarwood severed its ties with the Boys Scouts of America over BSA’s decision to allow gay youths to participate in the organization. Not only does the church preach against homosexuality and transgenderism to this day, but the PCA also still does not allow women to be ministers or deacons.
The PCA did finally ask for forgiveness and apologize for its racist past—in 2016. While 863 voted for doing so, 123 church leaders voted against it. Although Briarwood says that it has moved past its bigoted origins, a search of the church’s website found not one picture of a black person in church leadership or a prominent role. If you pause some of the videos for the church’s services, you might be able to spot a few nonwhite faces in the pews.
During a September football game against predominantly black Fairfield High School’s Tigers team, Briarwood Christian School students came on the field to a “Make America Great Again, Trump the Tigers” sign.
Harry Reeder, the Briarwood Presbyterian pastor, is as problematic as the place of worship. He is a longtime advocate for the Confederate flag and speaks at ceremonies for neo-Confederate groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Although religious organizations are prohibited from taking political stances, Reeder often shills for the Republican Party, as he did in his recent broadcast “Mike Pence Places a Hedge Around His Marriage.”
He also finds time to repudiate everything Obama, which he did April 6 in this broadcast from the church’s radio station: “Unmasking, Leaking, Lying, Obama’s Watergate?” A drug raid at the church’s high school in 2015 is still shrouded in mystery.
Briarwood Presbyterian Church is an institution of worship that advocates an unabashed anti-equality, conservative, fundamentalist point of view. Who would give this church its own police force? Who could possibly have an interest in seeing a place with this kind of history arm itself?
The Man With the Power
Meet state Sen. J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner, the 80-year-old powerbroker who has served in the Alabama Legislature since 1963. He was a Democrat until 1983, when he switched parties. He is generally considered one of the most powerful politicians in the state, partly because he comes from a family of powerful men.
If you have ever seen the black-and-white footage of civil rights violence in Birmingham during the 1960s, you probably recognize the name of Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor as the man who sicced dogs on marchers, sprayed black children with fire hoses and beat nonviolent protesters with batons. While Connor was the face of segregation in Birmingham, the city was run by three men: Connor, Mayor Art Hanes and Public Works Commissioner J. T. Waggoner—father of “Jabo” Waggoner.
The younger (if 80 can ever be considered “young”) Waggoner does not publicly subscribe to his father’s racist past, but he has stated that he hopes to be “half the man” his father was. These are not the musings of a little boy idolizing his father. In 1961, when Connor, Waggoner Sr. and Hanes allowed the Ku Klux Klan a “15- or 20-minute” window to attack the Freedom Riders, Jabo Waggoner was 24 years old.
J.T. Waggoner is the sole sponsor of S.B. 193, and while he has never advocated for segregation, he resides in one of the whitest areas in Alabama: a little suburb called Vestavia Hills.
And that’s how the big little church might get its own police force. A church official explains the church’s need for a police force by telling reporters, “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.” The Root examined records at Birmingham’s 911 call center and scoured the archives of local news agencies and could find no emergency calls or precedent for any type of violence at Briarwood that would warrant a police force. The school does not need permission to hire armed guards or a security team, so what is really behind this bill?
If the bill becomes law, does that give the church its own municipal code of conduct? Will the church’s laws be enforced by officers? Are they subject to anti-discrimination laws? If Briarwood’s students are found with drugs on campus, do the church cops get to handle it themselves? Is the school’s small minority of black students safe? Can they banish LGBTQ teachers, students or parishioners? Should the taxpayers of Alabama be responsible for training a church’s private security force? If so, are they subject to the federal and state anti-discrimination hiring practices?
If the state of Alabama gives Briarwood its own police force, it will no longer be a church. It will be a white, fundamentalist, Christian armed compound with its own army, right next to one of the blackest, most defiant cities in America.
What could go wrong?