MACON, Ga. (CN) - Pro-gun activists have appealed a federal judge's dismissal of their challenge to a Georgia law that bans carrying firearms in places of worship.
GeorgiaCarry.Org and the Baptist Tabernacle of Thomaston, as well as the president and pastor of those groups, respectively, sued the state, Gov. Sonny Perdue, Upson County and County Manager Kyle Hood, seeking to prevent the enforcement of an amendment to Georgia's firearms laws. Senate Bill 308, which 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.
Since 2007, GeorgiaCarry.Org, a nonprofit organization that was founded to protect Second Amendment rights, has been fighting against cities and counties to repeal local gun regulations. Former Georgia Carry president Edward Stone, who regularly attends worship services at the Tabernacle, says that he wants to bring a firearm to church in case he needs to defend himself and his family, but fears arrest and prosecution in light of the new law.
Jonathan Wilkins, CEO and pastor of the Tabernacle, also belongs to Georgia Carry. He claims 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 says the statute prevents him from keeping a gun in his Tabernacle office, for self-protection.
In a 28-page opinion, issued Jan. 24, the Middle District of Georgia granted the state's motion to dismiss the complaint, noting failure to state a claim and that the state is, in any case, immune from suit.
The gun owners, who filed a notice of appeal with the 11th Circuit two days later, had claimed that the law violates members free exercise rights, but U.S. District Judge C. Ashley Royal said the statute does not prevent congregants from attending worship services or exercising their religious beliefs. "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," the ruling states.
Royal also dismissed Wilkins' claim that the statute interfered with the Tabernacle's ability to manage its internal affairs 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," which are protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
As for the Second Amendment claims, the court found that the challenged law passed the test of intermediate scrutiny because it is substantially related to a government interest, in this case crime prevention.
Drawing from Supreme Court decisions such as District of Columbia v. Heller, the order discusses the need for restrictions on gun possession in "sensitive places" like schools, government buildings and churches as a means of preventing crime. Although the opinion does not clarify what the Supreme Court meant by "sensitive places," it points out that churches can be considered sensitive places because of the activities that occur there.
Royal added that the ban on carrying firearms in places of worship both deters violent crime and protects the free exercise of religion by "protecting attendees from the fear or threat of intimidation or armed attack."
Rev. Wilkins may freely keep a gun in his office under the law if he notifies security or management personnel, and keeps the weapon stored properly.