In the 1990s, the Rev. Harry Reeder made news in Charlotte as an outspoken foe of what he called the “homosexual agenda.”
Then the pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, he helped lead the conservative charge in 1996 against a local production of “Angels in America,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play about gay life and AIDS in the 1980s. Then in 1997, Reeder headed a coalition of 40 pastors who lobbied successfully for cutting public funds to the Arts & Science Council for its financial support of the play.
Twenty years later, Reeder, now pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in suburban Birmingahm, Ala., is back in the national news.
Reeder’s 4,100-member church wants to establish its own police force.
The Alabama Senate voted 24 to 4 last month to approve a bill that would allow the church to start a police force on its two campuses 10 miles south of downtown Birmingham. Besides the church, the campuses are also home to a K-12 school and a seminary with 2,000 students and teachers.
The Briarwood bill has gotten the green light from a key House committee, but it’s uncertain whether the full House will get a chance to vote on it before the legislature’s scheduled adjournment Monday.
Last year, both the House and Senate voted to let Briarwood Presbyterian start its own police force. But then-Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley never signed it into law.
If this year’s legislature sends it to Alabama’s new governor, Kay Ivey, she is expected to sign it, the church’s attorney, Eric Johnston, told AL.com, the largest news operation in Alabama.
The public debate over the bill has been fierce.
Reeder’s church and legislative backers of the bill say Briarwood Presbyterian Church, with its two schools, wants to avoid the kind of tragedy that occured at Sandy Hook Elementary, the Connecticut school where 20 young children and six adult staff members were murdered by a gunman in 2012.
Reeder did not return phone calls and an email from the Observer.
He’s leaving the public comments to Matt Moore, Briarwood’s administrator, who issued a statement saying laws allowing police forces at private educational institutions at the university level would seem to fit the church’s situation.
“The sole purpose of this proposed legislation,” he said in the statement, “is to provide a safe environment for the church, its members and guests.”
But the ACLU of Alabama said letting one church establish its own police force would set a bad precedent and would violate the U.S. Constitution.
“The plan to create a church-operated police force and imbue it with all the powers of the State is unconstitional,” Randall Marshall, the group’s legal director, said in a statement. “The First Amendment prohibits the government from delegating police powers to a church. If the legislature and governor pursue this unwise course of action, a legal challenge in inevitable.”
When Reeder left Christ Covenant in Matthews for Briarwood in 1999, the Alabama church was stagnating. Now its congregation is among the biggest in that state.
Reeder had presided over rapid growth at Christ Covenant. When he gave his first sermon there in 1983, the congregation totaled 38. When he gave his final two sermons, on a Sunday in June 1999, he looked out at a total of 3,000 faces.
His exodus meant that Charlotte was losing one of its leading conservative Christian voters at the time.
Reeder was vocal in his condemnation of abortion and in his support for a right to pray in public schools.
But it was his role in Charlotte’s “Angels in America” controversy that many still remember.
In April 1997, during an emotionally charged meeting of the Mecklenburg County Board of County Commissioners, Reeder spoke up for a plan to cut more than $2 million in public funds to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Arts & Science Council because it helped bring “Angels in America,” with its brief male nudity and LGBTQ themes, to Charlotte.
“It’s crucial to understand that the support of art doesn’t require the support of a homosexual agenda,” he told a packed house of 700 that night.
Gays and lesbians, he added, seek “the total reconstruction of our culture.”
Clergy on the other side spoke up at the same meeting for free speech and against discrimination against gays and lesbians.
At Briarwood, Reeder remains a vocal critic of the LGBTQ community. His Alabama church, like Christ Covenant, is affiliated with the conservative Presbyterian Church in America. It’s the country’s second largest Presbyterian denomination. The biggest is the Presbyterian Church (USA), a moderate-to-liberal mainline denomination that allows same-sex weddings and the ordination of openly gay and lesbian ministers. Most Presbyterian churches in Charlotte and the Carolinas belong to the Presbyterian Church (USA).
From his church in Alabama, Reeder does audio commentaries that run on 10 Christian radio stations around the country. Recently, he went after what he called “the destructive ethic of the LGBTQ agenda.”
But on that last Sunday at Christ Covenant in 1999, he targeted not gays and lesbians, but Charlotte’s business leaders and a city that he said had become more interested in affluence than morality.
His comments foreshadowed conservative Christians’ attacks last year on local and national corporations that opposed House Bill 2.
In 1999, Reeder said that Charlotte “is defining its world-class status in terms of financial prosperity. The dominant ethic in Charlotte right now is the matter of affluence. As long as we’re affluent, ethical absolutes have been lost.”