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Ga. ban on guns in churches challenged

By Greg Bluestein
Associated Press / October 7, 2011

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ATLANTA - There’s a legal battle 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 US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta heard arguments yesterday on a lawsuit brought by the central Georgia church and gun rights group GeorgiaCarry.org asserting 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 the 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, religious leaders, and Second Amendment groups are closely watching the outcome of this case.

If yesterday’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.

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 lawyer John Monroe as soon as he began making his arguments.

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

The suit 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 is 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?’’

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 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. Carnes, though, called it a “creative’’ interpretation of the statute.

The lawsuit revolves around a long-standing fight between gun owners and state lawmakers over where they’re allowed to take their firearms. Most gun rights advocates cheered when Georgia lawmakers lifted restrictions in 2010 that had long banned them from carrying their weapons into public gatherings.

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