The way Jonathan Wilkins sees it, members of his Baptist church
in Thomaston, Ga., should have the right to carry guns into worship services to
protect the congregation.
Wilkins’ Baptist Tabernacle and a Georgia gun-rights
association are challenging a new state law that prohibits weapons in houses of
worship. A lower court ruled against them in January; the case is now headed
“What we’re fighting for is not that just any old body can
carry guns in church,” Wilkins said. “We would be responsible. We would want people
who are trained, and so forth, to carry, people that we designate for
Recently, state legislatures in Georgia, Michigan and
Louisiana have been caught in the crossfire of the debate between gun rights
and gun control as they consider allowing weapons in houses of worship.
Though gun-rights proponents think they have both the First
and Second Amendments on their side, they also cite the rights of religious organizations
as property owners. Opponents, meanwhile, worry that having weapons in worship
is part of a slippery slope to permitting them everywhere.
A month after then-Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the 2010
law listing places of worship among “unauthorized” locations for carrying weapons,
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal took the opposite tack. Louisiana law now permits
trained worshippers to bring guns into churches, mosques and synagogues as long
as fellow congregants are informed.
Meanwhile, other states are mulling whether to scale back restrictions
In Michigan, gun rights activists are pushing for a change
in the law that would make it possible to carry guns in worship without prior permission
from a presiding official.
Mike Thiede, spokesman for Michigan Gun Owners and a member
of a Baptist church, said he spoke to legislators in favor of changing the law
after a church secretary was assaulted and a pastor was tied up during a
robbery at another church.
“I just thought it was a terrible situation for people to be
in,” he said. “Outside that door, they could protect themselves but inside that
door, they could be a victim.”
Other crimes have prompted greater interest in new
legislation. In 2009 alone, abortion doctor and usher George Tiller was shot in
the foyer of his Lutheran church in Kansas; Fred Winters was killed in his
Illinois pulpit; and Carol Daniels was found dead in her Oklahoma church.
“When you see things like that happening over and over
again, churches are saying, ‘What are we supposed to do?”‘ said Jeffrey Hawkins,
executive director of the Virginia-based Christian Security Network.
Hawkins’ organization reported seven homicides in churches
in 2010, but while he supports crime prevention techniques, Hawkins does not advocate
worshippers carrying guns into church.
“You go into somewhere crowded, like a church, and there’s
three people who have guns out that are shooting at each other,” he said. “How’s
the police officer going to be able to discern who’s … the bad guy?”
Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney of the San
Francisco-based Legal Community Against Violence, said many states remain
silent on weapons and worship. But she said gun lobbyists have become more
vocal advocates for permitting weapons not only in churches but in other public
places, such as parking lots and bars.
“Guns don’t have a place in public, especially places like
churches and bars and places where a lot of people are congregating,” she said.
“An unintentional shooting could end up injuring many people.”
Laws about weapons in houses of worship vary widely. Some
states forbid firearms in religious buildings but others permit them unless a congregation
has posted a sign disallowing them. Still others say they’re permitted if the
pastor, priest or rabbi gives the OK.
And the penalties are just as varied, with some “like a
traffic ticket” and other violations considered a felony, Hawkins said.
In Virginia, carrying a gun in a house of worship is allowed
unless there’s a service being conducted. If there is a service, “good and sufficient
reason” — a term left undefined in the code — is required.
“We think our law is actually broad enough that there’s no
great urgency to try to change it,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia
Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group.
In Mississippi, several bills introduced this year to remove
churches from a list of prohibited places for weapons died in committee, but at
least one continues to be debated.
“It seems to me that our law that explicitly prohibits acts
in a church that are perfectly legal outside the church clearly violates the First
Amendment in addition to the Second,” said Jeff Pittman, vice president of the
Mississippi State Firearm Owners Association.
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