No religious right to carry guns in church, 11th Circuit rules

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

There is no religious-liberty right to carry weapons in places of worship, a federal appeals court has ruled. Carrying firearms for self-defense is a “personal preference, motivated by a secular purpose,” the court reasoned.

GeorgiaCarry.Org, a pro-gun group, the Baptist Tabernacle of Thomaston and two individuals — Edward Stone and Jonathan Wilkins — sued in a Georgia state court in July 2010. They challenged a state law that prohibited the unrestricted carrying of weapons in certain locations, including houses of worship.

The plaintiffs alleged that the restriction on carrying weapons in church violated both the First Amendment right to exercise religious faith freely and the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

The government defendants had the case removed to a federal district court, which dismissed the claims.

The plaintiffs then appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the lower court in its July 20, 2012, decision in GeorgiaCarry.org v. State of Georgia. The appeals court did recognize that the plaintiffs had standing — a sufficient stake to bring the lawsuit — because they faced a possible penalty for violating the law if they carried guns in churches. Nevertheless the three-judge appeals court panel rejected the merits of the claims.

The appeals court explained that a free-exercise claim requires a showing that the government law or practice substantially burdens the exercise of religious activity or practice. The appeals court said the plaintiffs failed to clear this hurdle.

“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,” the panel said. It added that “there is no First Amendment protection for personal preferences; nor is there protection for secular beliefs.”

The panel also determined that the plaintiffs’ Second Amendment claim failed because private property owners can prohibit individuals from carrying weapons on their property. “A place of worship’s right, rooted in the common law, to forbid possession of firearms on its property is entirely consistent with the Second Amendment,” the opinion said.

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