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States caught in crossfire over guns in churches
Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service
February 16, 2011

States caught in crossfire over guns in churches

States caught in crossfire over guns in churches
Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service
February 16, 2011

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

for appeal.

“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

protective purposes.”

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

on weapons.

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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