In 2017, when Briarwood Presbyterian Church asked the overwhelmingly Republican legislature of Alabama to grant it the authority to form its own police force, politicians let the bill die amid public outcry over the separation of church and state, the congregation’s history of racism and its public homophobia.
Two years later, the Associated Press reports that Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey unceremoniously signed legislation on Wednesday that allows Briarwood to create a law enforcement agency to arrest and detain anyone who breaks the law on the sprawling church property that is home to 3,000 weekly worshipers, 2,000 K-12 students and a seminary that trains its future Christian leaders.
Briarwood is one of the largest and most influential churches in the entire Bible Belt and has a long history of racism. In 1973, 260 churches with congregations totaling 41,000 members split from the Presbyterian Church in the United States and formed what would become the Presbyterian Church in America. Although the current PCA website attributes the split to PCUS’s “liberal theology,” the truth is, the mostly Southern congregations seceded from the larger PCUS after the PCUS decided that it would allow black and white parishioners to worship together.
And where did those church leaders meet to form this Confederate church?
Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Vestavia, Ala.
Since its founding, Briarwood has been notorious for continuing to root for everyone straight, white and male. Not only does it not allow women to have leadership roles as ministers or deacons, but the church’s history is also rife with racism and homophobia, including:
- A football game against predominantly black Fairfield High School, when Briarwood Christian School students came on the field to a “Make America Great Again, Trump the Tigers” sign.
- Briarwood pastor Harry Reeder advocating for the continued use of the Confederate flag and speaking at ceremonies for neo-Confederate groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans (although many will point out that his racism doesn’t count because he has black kids in his family).
- “Practical Encouragement for Christians in a Time of Cultural Transitions Part 2,” a sermon that aired on Briarwood’s national radio network informing listeners how to get “in the mode to persuade” friends and family that homosexuality is against the word of God.
- In 2012, at its national conference, the church issued an official condemnation to Disney for “promoting 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.
- When PCA asked for forgiveness and apologized for its racist past way back in 2016 (pdf), 863 church leaders voted in favor of the proclamation; 123 voted against it.
- Despite the fact that tax-exempt churches are prohibited from taking political stances, Reeder also shills for Trump and the GOP, as he did in his broadcast, Mike Pence Places a Hedge Around His Marriage.
- Reeder also finds time to repudiate everything Obama, which he did April 6 in a broadcast from the church’s radio station: “Unmasking, Leaking, Lying, Obama’s Watergate?”
- Reeder regularly voices distaste for the Presbyterian “Revoice” movement that seeks to reconcile LGBTQ Presbyterians with the church. “The unmistakable proposal in Revoice is that same-sex attraction is a syndrome to be strategically managed,” he writes. “That is not God’s voice. To be clear same-sex attraction is not a syndrome to be managed. It is a sinful desire to be mortified.”
The legislation was first introduced by Sen. J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner, the 80-year-old powerbroker who has served in the Alabama Legislature since 1963 and hails from a family of powerful men.
In April 2017, I wrote:
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.
Randy Marshall of the Alabama ACLU told the Associated Press that he expects the law to be challenged in court for the unconstitutionality of allowing a religious institution to have government power. The K-12 school does not report its diversity numbers but I’m sure the police department will be more than transparent, although a 2015 drug raid at the school is still shrouded in mystery.
Briarwood and other Alabama churches are now free to form their own political forces while Alabama politicians worry about the big issues like criminalizing women who insist they have control over their own vaginas; combating the influx of Mexican immigrants coming across the border Alabama shares with Georgia and, of course, those anti-American Islamic fundamentalists who want to incorporate their religious values into the law.
God Bless the great state of Alabama.