National Catholic Register


Churches Fight New Weapons Laws

BY Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

February 15-21, 2004 Issue | Posted 2/15/04 at 12:00 PM


ST. PAUL, Minn. — Church leaders in Minnesota and Utah are fighting laws that allow for concealed weapons to be carried into churches unless the property owner forbids them.

In Minnesota, the Personal Protection Act was passed on the rationale that if people are freer to carry guns for self-defense, there will be less crime.

In Utah, the uproar is regarding the fact that churches must state clearly that guns are banned from their premises by telling people personally, announcing it, having a sign outside or other ways. Additionally, churches must register with the state that they intend to ban the weapons from the premises.

“The state of Utah is presuming to tell the various religious institutions in the state that we can do what we have been doing for millennia,” said a press release from a coalition of Utah's religious leaders. “The state is telling us that we cannot prohibit permitted concealed weapons from being brought into our holy spaces unless we register with a designated state agency.”

It's this last requirement that got to Bishop George Niederauer of Salt Lake City.

“I don't need the state of Utah's permission to make such a policy for Catholic churches,” he told a press conference in December. “It is a surrender of our private-property rights to submit to such a law.”

The diocese, along with most other churches in the state, is refusing to comply.

For a while, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has its world headquarters in Salt Lake City, did not comment on the issue or register with the state. But on Jan. 30, the Mormon leadership said guns do not belong in houses of worship and that the sect would notify people of their intent to ban them from their churches by notifications in newspapers and registering with the state on its Web site.

Mormons dominate the state of Utah in nearly all aspects of life as they make up slightly more than 66% of the population. The second-largest religion is Catholicism, with approximately 100,000 members out of a population of 2.2 million. The Legislature is nearly 100% Mormon.

No penalties are attached for noncompliance to the new law, and there is talk that the legislator who sponsored it might be willing to reverse it.

Utah changed its law regarding concealed weapons in 1995, said Dee Rowland, the diocese's government liaison. Prior to that, the applicant had to show cause to carry a concealed weapon; now, the state must show cause why the person can't carry a weapon.

That change brought a proliferation in weapons and also resulted in several accidents and murders, including one in the Genealogical Center on the Mormon church campus.

The law did not prohibit guns in schools or churches, and the state Parent-Teacher Association and Utah Educational Association started a signature drive to change that. But the effort failed, Rowland said, because the associations’ members failed to support it.

‘Welcome to St. Mary's’

Minnesota does not have the same state-registration requirement Utah has, but Church leaders think parts of the new law are not only onerous but also unconstitutional.

The main part of the law allows more people to carry weapons. Prior to the bill's passage, county sheriffs were the only ones who could decide who could get a concealed-weapon permit. The new law imposes state standards and only bars criminals who have been convicted of certain felonies from having a permit.

But other parts of the law directly impact churches because of certain requirements for restricting concealed guns from property. So the Minnesota Catholic Conference decided to sue the state in Ramsey County and joined with a number of other religious groups to do so.

Their suit is similar to another one in Hennepin County initiatedby Edina Community Lutheran Church. That church happens to have former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug as a member and he is representing the churches in both cases.

The churches are challenging the law on several points, saying it violates the U.S. and Minnesota Constitutions’ provisions for the free exercise of religion, free association and free speech.

Among their concerns: The law requires that signs stating that the property owner “bans guns in these premises” be at all entrances in a specific size, typeface and font size. It also does not allow for the banning of weapons from parking lots.

The law requires that people be individually told guns are not allowed in church.

“Imagine your reaction when approaching a church on Sunday to be greeted not with, ‘Hello, welcome to St. Mary's, peace be with you,’ but, ‘Hello, St. Mary's Church does not permit you to carry a gun on these premises,’” said Bishop John Nienstedt of New Ulm, Minn. “Somehow the whole atmosphere is altered by this requirement.”

Concerned About Violence

This isn't a simple exercise of state interference with church affairs, though. More than that, the bishops are concerned about the increase of violence in society.

“We ought to be teaching one another how to live together in harmony rather than making self-defense our first and most pronounced priority,” Bishop Nienstedt said.

Under the law, landlords cannot forbid their tenants from having firearms on their property. This directly impacts the Catholic Church because, for instance, the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul owns apartments nearby that were renovated and are now rented to low-income families. Other parishes and Church institutions have similar arrangements.

The suit in Hennepin has had some successes. The churches originally asked for an injunction to be granted on the signs, the parking lot and landlord-tenant issues. The judge in the case ruled favorably in regard to the signs but determined that the churches did not have standing on the parking-lot and landlord issues.

Lillehaug appealed that ruling and the Minnesota Court of Appeals recently remanded the case to the district court after determining that the churches do have standing on those issues.

A hearing in the Ramsey County case is expected in late February and the judge in Hennepin should be ruling on a new injunction request in the next month or two.

Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz writes from Altura, Minnesota.