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Trump-appointed judge blocks New York restriction on guns in churches

Two pastors in western upstate New York sued over the state’s ban on carrying firearms in churches, among other locations deemed “sensitive.”

ALBANY (CN) —  A Trump-appointed federal judge entered an injunction late Thursday that blocks New York from banning guns in “any place of worship or religious observation.”

The Empire State is among some half-dozen jurisdictions that had key provisions of their strict gun laws struck down by the Supreme Court in June because of a requirement for applicants to prove they had “proper cause” for a permit.

While the state acted quickly to fine-tune legislation to bar firearms from being carried in churches and other "sensitive" places, U.S. District Judge John Sinatra Jr. found a 14th Amendment violation in section of the statute that prohibits citizens from carrying guns into churches. A 2019 Trump appointee, Sinatra specified in a 44-page opinion “that it prevents law-abiding citizens with ordinary self defense needs from exercising their right to keep and bear arms.”

“Legislative enactments may not eviscerate the Bill of Rights,” added Sinatra, a longtime member of the Federalist Society conservative legal organization that has had a hand in many of Trump’s judicial picks. “Every day they do is one too many.”

In the wake of the high court’s June decision eviscerating New York's century-old handgun licensing law, Governor Kathy Hochul and the Democrat-controlled state Legislature called a special legislative to quickly overhaul its guns laws with the objective of limiting the proliferation of guns of public places.

The state’s new firearms law went into effect on Sept. 1, requiring applicants for a concealed carry permit to complete 16 hours of classroom training and two hours of live-fire exercises.

In addition to churches, ordinary citizens had been barred under the now-enjoined law from bringing firearms to other locations that authorities deemed “sensitive” — schools, subways, theaters and amusement parks, to name a few.

A pair of Black church pastors — the Reverand Jimmie Hardaway Jr. of Trinity Baptist Church in Niagara Falls and Bishop Larry A. Boyd of Open Praise Full Gospel Baptist Church in Buffalo — challenged the restrictions in October, as they pertain to houses of worship, citing the need to defend themselves and their congregations against the possibility of attacks.

Both pastors said they carried concealed firearms in their churches for self-defense and out of “unique obligation to their congregants” to be ready in case of confrontation, noting that Boyd’s Buffalo church is located in “a neighborhood that has struggled with crime, violence, and gang-related issues.”

On Thursday, Judge Sinatra issued a preliminary injunction in the Western District of New York, ordering the defendants, state police and district attorneys in Erie and Niagara counties, to stop enforcing a new state law. The court's injunction followed a temporary restraining order that the judge issued weeks earlier.

The Firearms Policy Coalition, a co-plaintiff in the complaint, celebrated Judge Sinatra’s ruling. “We are thrilled that today the Court again recognized what FPC has been arguing since before Gov. Hochul and the foolhardy New York State Legislature even enacted this so-called Concealed Carry ‘Improvement’ Act,” the organization’s director of legal operations, Bill Sack, said on Thursday. “The right to bear arms outside the home for self defense is fundamental. Hard stop. It is not subject to the whims of statist idealogues or the legislative malarky of single party states.”

Sack's group is joined in the suit by the Second Amendment Foundation.

For the last century, New York has used the Sullivan Law’s “proper cause” requirement to decide if gun owners qualify for a concealed-carry permit. New York allows licensing authorities to use discretion when considering applications to carry concealed firearms. Laws like New York's are referred to as “may” laws because a state may issue a license if the person shows good cause. Some states do not allow this discretion and instead have “shall” laws. In other states like Texas, the permitting process is being abandoned altogether. 

The Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision struck down the “may” laws, but keeps in place the “shall” laws. Justice Brett Kavanaugh — joined by Chief Justice John Roberts — addresses this issue specifically in a concurring opinion. 

“The Court’s decision does not prohibit States from imposing licensing requirements for carrying a handgun for self-defense,” the Trump appointee wrote. “In particular, the Court’s decision does not affect the existing licensing regimes — known as “shall-issue” regimes — that are employed in 43 States.” 

Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin, a Republican challenging Governor Hochul in the state’s upcoming gubernatorial race on Nov. 8, touts an A-rating from the National Rifle Association and celebrated the Supreme Court overturning New York’s stricter concealed carry laws.

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