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Court hears arguments on gun ban in churches

- Associated Press - Thursday, October 6, 2011

ATLANTA — A legal battle is brewing in Georgia over whether licensed gun owners should be allowed to carry firearms to churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship after state lawmakers banned them from doing so last year.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta heard arguments Thursday on a lawsuit brought by a central Georgia church and the gun-rights group GeorgiaCarry.org claiming that the law violates their constitutionally protected religious freedoms. State lawyers said it was a small price to pay to allow other worshippers to pray without fearing for their safety.

The panel of judges roundly criticized the suit after hearing oral arguments but didn't immediately make a ruling.

Georgia is one of a handful of states with the restrictions - court papers say Arkansas, Mississippi and North Dakota have also adopted similar laws - and court observers and Second Amendment groups are closely watching the outcome of this case.

If Thursday's arguments are any indication, the challengers are facing a tough fight. All three judges on the panel raised technical legal concerns about the lawsuit targeting the 2010 law that banned people from carrying weapons into houses of worship.

It seemed the biggest stumbling block was the group's decision to target the state but not the local prosecutors and authorities who would actually enforce the law. Judges pounced on GeorgiaCarry.org attorney John Monroe as soon as he began making his arguments.

"We're not asking you to put in more defendants," Circuit Judge Gerald Bard Tjoflat said. "What we're saying to you is there's nothing we can do for you."

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of the Baptist Tabernacle of Thomaston, where the Rev. Jonathan Wilkins said he wanted to have a gun for protection while working in the church office. The judge also questioned how banning firearms in a place of worship violates religious freedoms.

At one point, Circuit Judge Ed Carnes questioned whether there's any passage in the Bible that allows guns in churches. Did any challenger, he wondered, argue: "Thou shalt have the right to bring a gun to church?"

GeorgiaCarry.org attorney John Monroe said his client quoted scripture that underpinned his beliefs on firearms, but he wasn't able to offer any of the quotes at the hearing.

State attorney Laura Lones, meanwhile, countered that the law only minimally restricts gun rights in churches. She argued the law can be interpreted to allow gun owners to bring their weapons into houses of worship as long as they have permission and keep the weapons secured. Judge Carnes, though, called it a "creative" interpretation of the statute.

Critics of the law argue that churches shouldn't be included in the restrictions, which mostly involve public buildings.

"We're not trying to force churches to allow guns in their sanctuary," said Kelly Kennett, a gun owner who is president of GeorgiaCarry.org. "Churches should be treated like any other private property owner. Why are you treating people at churches differently than how you'd be treated at a store, at a bank, at a club?"

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