GREG BLUESTEIN, Associated Press
ATLANTA — There's a legal battle brewing in Georgia over whether licensed gun owners should be allowed to carry firearms to churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship after state lawmakers banned them from doing so last year.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta heard arguments Thursday on a lawsuit brought by the central Georgia church and gun rights group GeorgiaCarry.org claiming that the law violates their constitutionally protected religious freedoms. State lawyers said it was a small price to pay to allow other worshippers to pray without fearing for the safety. The panel of judges roundly criticized the suit after hearing oral arguments but didn't immediately make a ruling.
Georgia is one of a handful of states with the restrictions — court papers say Arkansas, Mississippi and North Dakota have also adopted similar laws — and court observers and Second Amendment groups are closely watching the outcome of this case.
If Thursday's arguments are any indication, the challengers are facing a tough fight. All three judges on the panel raised technical legal concerns about the lawsuit targeting the 2010 law that banned people from carrying weapons into houses of worship.
It seemed the biggest stumbling block was the group's decision to target the state but not the local prosecutors and authorities who would actually enforce the law. Judges pounced on GeorgiaCarry.org attorney John Monroe as soon as he began making his arguments.
"We're not asking you to put in more defendants," said Circuit Judge Gerald Bard Tjoflat. "What we're saying to you is there's nothing we can do for you."
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of the Baptist Tabernacle of Thomaston, where the Rev. Jonathan Wilkins said he wanted to have a gun for protection while working in the church office. The judge also questioned how banning firearms in a place of worship violates religious freedoms.
At one point, Circuit Judge Ed Carnes questioned whether there's any passage in the Bible that allows guns in churches. Did any challenger, he wondered, argue: "Thou shalt have the right to bring a gun to church?"
GeorgiaCarry.org attorney John Monroe said his client quoted scripture that underpinned his beliefs on firearms, but he wasn't able to offer any of the quotes at the hearing.
State attorney Laura Lones, meanwhile, countered that the law only minimally restricts gun rights in churches. She argued the law can be interpreted to allow gun owners to bring their weapons into houses of worship as long as they have permission and keep the weapons secured. Carnes, though, called it a "creative" interpretation of the statute.
The lawsuit revolves around a long-standing fight between gun owners and state lawmakers over where they're allowed to bring their firearms. Most gun rights advocates cheered when Georgia lawmakers lifted restrictions in 2010 that had long banned them from bringing their weapons into public gatherings.
But the overhaul left intact restrictions that banned guns from being carried into government buildings, courthouses, jails and prisons, state mental health facilities, nuclear plants and houses of worship. It also restricted owners from bringing weapons into bars without permission from the owner.
Critics of the law argue that churches shouldn't be included in the restrictions, which mostly involve public buildings.
"We're not trying to force churches to allow guns in their sanctuary," said Kelly Kennett, a gun owner who is president of GeorgiaCarry.org. "Churches should be treated like any other private property owner. Why are you treating people at churches differently than how you'd be treated at a store, at a bank, at a club?"
The court's decision isn't expected for a few weeks, and GeorgiaCarry.org members said they are already considering appealing an adverse ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. But Kennett said it may not matter either way, as two legislative proposals are already pending that would relax the gun restrictions.
"I feel there's a high likelihood it will pass — but you never know."