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Group takes guns in church case to federal appeals court

Local churches offering different views on issue

POSTED: October 9, 2011 10:59 p.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Jon Lipscomb, right, owner of Foxhole Guns and Archery, talks about guns with customer Alex Hill Friday.

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For decades people have argued over gun rights.

That battle continues to rage in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals where the gun-rights group GeorgiaCarry.org is hoping to persuade a three-judge panel that a Georgia law banning guns in "places of worship" interferes with the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion. Only Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas and North Dakota prohibit firearms in churches, synagogues and mosques.

GeorgiaCarry.org took its case to federal appeals court after losing its previous case in federal court in Macon.

The three judges heard arguments Thursday about the law, raising legal and technical concerns about the lawsuit, but didn't immediately make a ruling.

Many local religious leaders and gun shops agree with the gun-rights group that Georgia law shouldn't prevent people from carrying concealed weapons in churches.

"As the Second Amendment states, every citizen has the right to bear arms wherever they want to be," said Jon Lipscomb, owner of Foxhole Guns and Archery in Gainesville.

"As a U.S. citizen you have the right to bear arms and that's all it states. It doesn't state that you can't bear it one place versus another," he added.

Other local religious leaders agreed with the civil rights aspect but support bearing arms in places of worship simply so churchgoers can protect themselves.

The Rev. Calvin Haney, pastor at St. Paul Methodist Church in Gainesville, said he is not opposed to guns in church for that reason alone.

"I have said for many years that churches are very vulnerable places on Sunday mornings, because people often are unarmed," Haney said. "You could have an armed man coming in ... and he could take up a collection and leave with a pretty good heist."

He added that regardless of what the law states, people would continue to conceal weapons.

"I don't think people come in with holsters on, but people may have weapons on them anyway," Haney said.

The issue of gun control has been fought for decades and Haney acknowledges it's a fight that will probably never be settled.

"I'm sorry that we live as a more comminatory society and you have to think that somebody has always got to be armed in order to protect person and property, but that's the Second Amendment," he said.

The Rev. Earl Pirkle, senior pastor at Central Baptist in Gainesville, agreed with Haney that churches can often be susceptible to gun violence because someone can easily disagree with the belief of the church.

"I believe in the rights to individuals carrying guns ... my concern has always been that person that's discouraged or depressed," Pirkle said.

However, while Pirkle does agree with the Second Amendment allowing Americans to carry concealed weapons, he remains indifferent to their permittance into places of worship.

"I'm not wild about them and we haven't made a decision one way or another where our church stands. We leave that to individuals at this time," Pirkle said.

The Rev. Bill Coates, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Gainesville, said he is not a proponent of guns in his church. He questioned the need for bringing a gun to church and said it goes against the churches' beliefs.

"I would argue that seems to be completely incompatible with the kingdom of heaven ... so I don't understand the desire to create legislation around this," Coates said.

The issue of guns in churches, though, is one that is very divided. Regardless of faith, not every religious leader has the same belief regarding guns in their places of worship.

The Rev. Tom Smiley, senior pastor at Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville, is a strong advocate of the Second Amendment and even has a concealed carry permit himself.

"I'm a very staunch believer in the Second Amendment of firearms and I think limiting firearms should be a very limited thing," Smiley said.

He added that even if people do carry firearms in church they would be concealed and nobody would realize it was there.

"I don't have a problem with them being in churches," Smiley said. "Unless churches go to having the wherewithal to monitor and search people then how effective would the law be to law abiding people?"

The worry for many is if guns are banned in places of worship, then the only people who would bring a weapon would be somebody with bad intentions.

"My take has always been if you outlaw that then the only people that would ever (carry firearms in church) would be criminals," Smiley said. "If they know the church doesn't have the mechanisms or mechanics of screening people and you make it illegal then the only people who are not going to have them would be honest law abiding citizens."

Like many other large churches, Lakewood Baptist has armed, uniformed police officers stationed at the church every Sunday, Wednesday and other days gatherings occur.

"We've been doing that for years," Smiley said. "We have a fairly sophisticated safety program."

Alice Johnson, executive director of Georgians for Gun Safety, said guns should be banned in all public establishments, not solely churches and government buildings.

"There are places we believe that guns do not belong for any number of reasons. Sometimes safety, sometimes sensitivity of the location and churches are one of those," Johnson said.

Johnson cited a poll of Georgians conducted by the organization that revealed the majority of people don't agree with guns in churches.

"We believe ... that there are locations that guns do not belong and we think that is an opinion that is overwhelmingly shared by the majority of Georgians."

Associated Press contributed to this story.



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