Church Loses Challenge to Georgia Gun Limits

     (CN) - A Baptist preacher and one of his congregants cannot fight a Georgia law that blocked them from bringing their guns to church, the 11th Circuit ruled.
     Senate Bill 308, which Georgia passed in June 2010, modified a law that at the time prohibited gun owners from bringing their weapons to a "public gathering." The amendment specifies eight unauthorized locations to bring firearms, including courthouses, jails or prisons, most bars, mental health facilities, and churches or other places of worship.
     GeorgiaCarry.Org, an organization dedicated to Second Amendment rights, has been fighting gun regulations in various cities and counties since 2007. The nonprofit's former president Edward Stone complained that the law would block him from bringing a firearm to services at the Baptist Tabernacle of Thomaston. He said a gun could be helpful if he needs to defend himself and his family.
     Tabernacle pastor Jonathan Wilkins also belongs to Georgia Carry. He claimed that the gun ban violates Georgia residents' First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion and their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. Wilkins also said that the statute prevents him from keeping a gun in his church office, for self-protection.
     Finding that the statute does not prevent churchgoers from attending worship services or exercising their religious beliefs, a federal judge in Macon dismissed the complaint.
     "The law only requires that persons either not carry a weapon to a place of worship, leave their weapons secured in their vehicles, or notify security or management personnel of the presence of the weapon," U.S. District Judge C. Ashley Royal wrote in January 2011.
     Georgia's statute also does not interfere with church management in violation of the free-exercise clause since "the tabernacle does not allege that the safety concerns or security protocols of a place of worship involve issues of religious faith or doctrine," a constitutionally protected right, the court found.
     Since the law also serves a government interest - crime prevention - it also passes Second Amendment scrutiny, Royal noted.
     A three-judge panel in Atlanta affirmed Tuesday.
     Stone, Wilkins and their respective organizations cannot prove that the gun law violates their ability to practice their religion, the 40-page decision states.
     "We searched the amended complaint to no avail in an attempt to find factual allegations that could possibly be construed as alleging that the Carry Law imposes a constitutionally impermissible burden on one of plaintiffs' sincerely held religious beliefs," Judge Gerard Tjoflat wrote for a three-judge panel.
     "That plaintiffs 'would like' to carry a firearm in order to be able to act in 'self-defense' is a personal preference, motivated by a secular purpose."
     Tjoflat also noted that the Second Amendment claims seek to "destroy one cornerstone of liberty - the right to enjoy one's private property - in order to expand another - the right to bear arms.
     "This we will not do," he wrote. "If [...] our concept of civil liberties depends on a three-legged stool of rights - personal security, personal liberty, and private property - it would be unwise indeed to cut off one leg entirely only to slightly augment another. Rather, our task is to read the Second Amendment's preexisting right alongside the equally important rights protected by the Constitution in order to strengthen all three legs and thereby better secure the foundation of our liberty,"