On Feb. 11, Gov. Mike Beebe signed a bill into law that alters the exemption in the concealed carry handgun statute that had prohibited permit holders from carrying their guns into houses of worship. Called "The Church Protection Act," the new addendum to the law says that church officials may now determine for themselves who can carry a concealed handgun into their place of worship. An emergency clause attached to the bill made the new law go into effect immediately after it was signed.
The wording of the law, which will necessarily require churches to discuss whether their parishioners should or shouldn't be able to bring guns into places of worship (and potentially even more thorny: which specific parishioners should be allowed to carry if guns are allowed), has thrust congregations into what one pastor a reporter spoke to called the "touchy and divisive issue" of Second Amendment rights. Some of the religious leaders we talked to also considered the moral implications of bringing what one called "a weapon of mayhem and death" into a church. An advocate of church carry, however, says that the decision on whether to allow parishioners to pack in the pews now lies where it should have been all along: with individual churches, not the state.
Marie Mainard O'Connell is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Little Rock. She said that while the church's ruling body had pre-emptive discussions about the bill before it became law, all she can say right now is that the church is "actively discussing" its policies.
O'Connell's personal feelings on the issue are more clear-cut. She believes the emergency clause attached to the bill didn't give churches enough time to consider the ramifications of church carry before they were forced to make a decision. "Since it goes into effect immediately, if the church does not yet have a policy in place, where does it land?" she said. "Does that mean that anyone with a concealed carry permit can assume they're allowed? ... I know some of the legislators that were in favor of it want the churches to think: 'Well, you don't have to do anything.' But I still believe the law is unclear."
Beyond the policy changes, O'Connell said there are moral issues to discuss in regard to church carry.
"If I know that someone is hiding a weapon, and they come to the table to receive communion," O'Connell said, "does that mean anything different than if they had no weapon, or if they had an open weapon? As a minister of the sacrament, I feel like I am obligated to work through that moral and theological issue."
Dealing with whether to allow guns in church takes time away from the real work of leading her congregation, O'Connell said. She said it's frustrating that the state has imposed the issue on her church. "I have to take time out from pastoring and teaching and preaching to work on an issue that was a non-issue before the government decided they wanted it to be an issue," she said. "It's a perfect example of society imposing on religion, and religion having to consider: What does this mean? What does this mean for what I believe?"
Also concerned by the lifting of the ban is Rev. Wendell Griffen, who — in addition to being a Pulaski County circuit judge — is the minister of New Millennium Church in Little Rock. He said his church has decided it won't allow guns on its property, and plans to hang signs soon telling permit holders to leave their firearms at home. He called bringing a gun into a church "a perversion of everything holy."
"The notion of bringing instruments of death and mayhem — and that's what a gun is — into a place dedicated to love and life and peace and wholeness is a perversion," Griffen said. "It is a contamination of everything that you might consider sacred."
Griffen said that those who attend a church that allows concealed carry should consider what that decision suggests about church leaders' faith.
"Do you really want to go to worship at a place," Griffen said, "where the people who are the official leadership of the church have such a low view of God, and of love, and of humanity that they invite people to come and worship weaponized?"
Rabbi David Lipper of Congregation B'nai Israel said the synagogue will not be allowing guns on the premises either, and plans to post signs. In addition to a prohibition in Jewish law that forbids the carrying of concealed weapons in public, Lipper said that his congregation refuses to "live in an armed camp, which is not what our faith teaches us to do." He called the lifting of the church carry ban "a bad decision."
"We believe our house of worship is a place of peace," Lipper said, "and therefore we want to do no actions in our house of worship that would encourage people to do otherwise."
Nic Horton is a minister at Faith Assembly of God Highway 36 in Searcy, and has been a vocal advocate of lifting the church ban on concealed carry at the website to which he contributes, thearkansasproject.com. While he said his church hasn't had specific conversations on what its policy will be, he believes whether or not to allow church carry is a decision that should be left to the churches. Horton said that lifting the ban will let smaller, rural churches provide security by arming certain trusted parishioners, adding that he believes many churches will go that route: letting a few carry, instead of a blanket permission. Allowing churches to make decisions like that, Horton said, is "the real meaning of the separation of church and state."
"What it does is get the state out of the business of making decisions for churches, and allows the churches to make decisions for themselves," he said. "The beauty of it is, if the pastors you've talked to don't want to allow church carry, they don't have to. But churches like mine and others in the area that feel like we should have some sort of security in place, we have the right to do that now."
As for the moral issue of bringing guns into churches, Horton said that's also a discussion for individual church congregations, and the state shouldn't intrude.
"I think the issue of church sovereignty is really important," Horton said. "And if people don't want to go to a church that allows concealed carry, guess what? They don't have to. They can go to the church of one of the pastors you interviewed that won't allow it. They have that choice."