ATLANTA The question before a three-judge panel for the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta Thursday is whether Georgia’s prohibition on firearms in places of worship conflicts with the promise of religious freedom in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
GeorgiaCarry.org, which brought the initial lawsuit, believes religious institutions, not Georgia law, should dictate if firearms are allowed inside, and they point to accounts of shootings in churches as examples of why guns are needed even while worshiping.
But lawyers for the state say the ban makes it possible for “worshipers to focus on spiritual activities” instead of “protective vigilance.”
GeorgiaCarry.org’s argument about the First Amendment is a novel approach to challenging a gun law. Only Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas and North Dakota specifically prohibit firearms in churches, synagogues and mosques, according to court filings.
“It’s about whether or not the government should be making laws dealing with churches,” said Kelley Kinnett, a regular church goer and president of GeorgiaCarry.org, a gun rights group. “This is more of a First Amendment case than a Second Amendment case.”
Last month, a former deacon at a Florida church shot and wounded the pastor and an associate pastor before parishioners tackled him.
Last year two teenage boys were wounded when three gunmen stormed a California church.
And in 2008 a gunman killed two and wounded six in a Tennessee church because he believed liberals, like the church’s members, were destroying the country.
Opponents of the ban also point out that large sums of cash are handled by church workers or volunteers who are sometimes there alone.
“Why would you not want to take a gun?” asked Jerry Henry, who is also with GeorgiaCarry.org. “Putting up this gun-free zone [in places of worship] makes that place accessible to attack. All we’re asking for is to have the same option the criminal has.”
But Jonathan Lowy, director of the Legal Action Project at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun control group that is not a participant in the lawsuit, said there is no constitutional right to carry loaded guns in public.
“If you chose to have a loaded gun in your home to protect yourself, that’s your right. It’s a whole different issue when you bring that gun where me and my children and other families are just going about ... business.
And it would be even more dangerous, he said, if well-meaning, armed civilians, faced with a dangerous situation, begin shooting in an effort “to save the day.”
“Injecting more guns into more public places and being held by more people causes death and injury much more than it’s saved lives,” Lowy said.
But in its brief, GeorgiaCarry.org wrote the threat of incarceration for anyone bringing a gun to church forces gun owners to “abandon their inherent right to self defense through the most effective means available while observing their faith through regular attendance.”
Constitutional scholars note the novelty of using the freedom of religion as a defense that otherwise would depend solely on the protections of the Second Amendment.
GeorgiaCarry.org is a non-profit group that advocates for less-restrictive gun laws. The group has been a part of successful campaigns to allow guns in unsecured areas of Georgia airports and in local parks.