Local News

July 5, 2014

Praying with pistols?

Local churches debating whether to allow guns in buildings

What would Jesus carry? How about Buddha or Mohammad?

A question laughable to many churchgoers is one that could be coming soon to a holy site near you.

Religious leaders in Murray and Whitfield counties, and throughout Georgia, are currently weighing the option to permit firearms within their places of worship — in Sunday school classrooms, dining halls or even behind the pulpit.

It is a debate sparked by the state’s “Safe Carry Protection Act,” a bill signed into law in April and effective July 1, which allows licensed gun owners to pack heat in many places previously deemed off-limits including bars, schools, some government buildings and churches.

Licensed gun owners can tote guns into a church, synagogue or mosque, if church leaders decide to “opt-in” to the bill, according to the new law.

Across the nation, Georgia’s House Bill 60 has sparked intense debate.

The National Rifle Association called it “the most comprehensive pro-gun reform legislation introduced in recent history.”

Critics dubbed it the “guns everywhere bill,” and call it the nation’s most extreme bill.

Church leaders in Whitfield and Murray counties asked this week for the most part say it is a controversy they’ve yet to address.

“This is not an issue that we have discussed on any level,” said Cyndi Parr, interim minister at Dalton’s First Presbyterian Church. But, “it will be interesting to see how various churches deal with the new law,” she said.

Chester Clark III, pastor at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Dalton, said: “I’ve not heard any discussion about the new law in our church community. As with most issues, I’m going to guess that there would be a variety of perspectives.”

The question is unanswered at Fellowship Bible Church in Dalton, too. But, Senior Pastor Jim Suddath said some members of the congregation have, at least, discussed it.

“At this point, the conversations I’ve had have been with some permit holders who have expressed a strong desire for safety, and believe — citing shootings at churches and schools in the last decade — that there is a favorable reason for carrying in a church,” he said.

Speaking for himself, as a church member rather than pastor — but stressing he will support any decision made by church elders, once one is made — Suddath said, “I would not have a problem with someone that has a legal permit carrying in a church.”

At least one Dalton church head polled this week said issue would be taken with firearms in church, and a decision has already been reached to keep them out.

The Rev. Beth Royalty, priest-in-charge at St. Mark’s Episcopal, said her church is in compliance, and agreement, with the decision of Bishop Robert Wright, of the Diocese of Atlanta.

Wright in April released a statement that said, in part: “While the new law would permit churches to allow firearms in their building and on their property, the Diocese of Atlanta will not do so. My judgment, charge and directive — as the ecclesiastical, or governing, authority of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta — is that, with the exception of on-duty law enforcement officers, firearms are not permitted in church buildings or on church property.”

Royalty said Thursday she believes churches “have historically been sanctuaries for people,” and “must remain to be a safe place for everyone.”

“No one at the church has expressed a desire for us to do the opposite,” she said. “I don’t want to speak for anyone, but we are a community of people that do value sanctuary and safety. I don’t think anyone at the church would be surprised for us to be going this way.”

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