Key point. State laws prohibiting holders of concealed weapons permits from carrying weapons on church property do not necessarily violate the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom or the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Does a state law prohibiting the carrying of concealed weapons in a church violate the constitutional rights of church members to bear arms and practice their religion? A federal appeals court said no. In 2010, the State of Georgia amended its concealed weapons law to make it a misdemeanor offense for a person with a concealed weapons permit to carry a concealed weapon “in a place of worship.” Several plaintiffs, including a church and its pastor, filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of this law.
First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom
The plaintiffs claimed that the statute violated their First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion because it imposed an impermissible burden on their ability to attend or conduct worship services by prohibiting them from carrying a firearm on their person for self-defense while doing so. The individual plaintiffs did not contend that their religious beliefs required them to carry a firearm into a place of worship, nor did the church allege that its members’ religious beliefs required them to carry a firearm into their church. Instead, the plaintiffs claimed that attending worship services is a sincere religious belief that has been impermissibly burdened by the statute’s requirements.
The court began its opinion by stressing that only beliefs rooted in religion are protected by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom. As a result, persons claiming a violation of their religious freedom must show that (1) “they hold a belief, not a preference, that is sincerely held and religious in nature, not merely secular; and (2) the law at issue in some way impacts [their] ability to either hold that belief or act pursuant to that belief.” The court concluded:
[The plaintiffs’ lawsuit] fails to state a claim for relief under the First Amendment. We searched … to no avail in an attempt to find factual allegations that could possibly be construed as alleging that the [concealed weapons law] imposes a constitutionally impermissible burden on one of plaintiffs’ sincerely held religious beliefs. At various points, plaintiffs allege that they would like to carry a handgun in a place of worship for the protection either of themselves, their family, their flock, or other members of the Tabernacle. Plaintiffs conclude by alleging that the concealed weapons law interferes with their free exercise of religion by prohibiting them from engaging in activities in a place of worship when those activities are generally permitted throughout the State. That plaintiffs “would like” to carry a firearm in order to be able to act in “self-defense” is a personal preference, motivated by a secular purpose …. There is no First Amendment protection for personal preferences; nor is there protection for secular beliefs …. In sum, conclusory allegations that the concealed weapons law interferes with plaintiffs’ free exercise of religion are not sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss. Their free exercise claim is not plausible, and the District Court correctly dismissed it.
the Second Amendment right to bear arms
The plaintiffs also claimed that the Georgia statute impermissibly burdened their right to keep and bear arms secured by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Second Amendment provides: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The plaintiffs relied on a 2008 decision by the United States Supreme Court. District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008). In the Heller case, the Supreme Court ruled that several statutes in the District of Columbia which, taken together, amounted to a total ban on possessing a handgun in the home, violated the Second Amendment. But the only conduct that the Supreme Court clearly located within the Second Amendment was the possession and carrying of a handgun by an otherwise qualified person within his home for self-defense. It carefully noted that “the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited,” and that “historically, the right had never been viewed as a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
The court noted that “an individual’s right to bear arms as enshrined in the Second Amendment, whatever its full scope, certainly must be limited by the equally fundamental right of a private property owner to exercise exclusive dominion and control over its land.” It concluded:
To the extent plaintiffs’ argument implies that the Second Amendment … somehow abrogates the right of a private property owner—here, a place of worship—to determine for itself whether to allow firearms on its premises and, if so, under what circumstances, the argument badly misses the mark. We conclude that the Second Amendment does not give an individual a right to carry a firearm on a place of worship’s premises against the owner’s wishes because such right did not preexist the Amendment’s adoption. Enforcing the concealed weapons law against a license holder who carries a firearm on private property against the owner’s instructions would therefore be constitutional.
What This Means For Churches:
This case is important, for it is the first case to address the constitutionality of state laws barring holders of concealed weapons licenses to bring their weapons onto designated properties, including churches. According to this court, such restrictions do not violate either the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom, or the Second Amendment right to bear arms. GeorgiaCarry.Org, Inc. v. Georgia, 2012 WL 2947817 (11th Cir. 2012).