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Opinion: Guns shouldn’t trump the First Amendment

According to the logic of a bill currently under consideration in the Missouri House, a church’s religious freedom rights should be overruled since some people may want to show up with a gun. Rep. Ben Baker (R-Newton) argued during a House General Laws Committee hearing Monday (Feb. 8) that a person’s “natural right” to a gun should supersede a religious community’s right to adopt and communicate its beliefs. As a Baptist minister, I find this bill unnecessary, unconstitutional, and dangerous.

Missouri law currently automatically bans concealed weapons from houses of worship unless an individual receives “the consent of the minister or person or persons representing the religious organization that exercises control over the place of religious worship.” This makes sense. A religious community should be able to define for itself if they desire for individuals to bring guns into their holy place.

But Baker’s HB 359 would switch the default position so that individuals with a concealed carry endorsement or permit could automatically bring a firearm into a house of worship unless that religious group posted significant signs at every entry. A church, synagogue, mosque, or other house of worship would not be able to determine its own policy regarding concealed guns without either accepting weapons or posting government-mandated signs on their sacred space.

The Second Amendment should not trump the First Amendment. Some groups hold deep religious convictions that lead them to oppose violence and weapons of any kind. Thus, Missouri legislators should reject a bill that targets those sincerely-held religious beliefs.

Oddly, Baker’s bill only attempts to change the status of houses of worship, meaning many other locations would remain places where one cannot bring a concealed weapon without proper consent — like a liquor store or a riverboat gambling operation or an amusement park. So, Baker’s bill acknowledges by default that limitations on concealed carry do and should exist.

If passed, this bill would give liquor stores, gambling boat operations, and amusement parks more rights than churches to decide about guns on their premises — even though houses of worship are protected by the First Amendment more than those entertainment businesses. This targeting of religious communities is wrong.

There’s not even a reason for Baker’s bill because people can already bring their concealed weapons into churches. Baker admitted during testimony that he does since his pastor allows it. A member of the committee even said he used to preach from a pulpit with a concealed gun strapped on. If a religious community wishes to allow concealed weapons, they already have that right. And if a house of worship doesn’t want weapons in their building, someone who disagrees with that decision is free to worship elsewhere.

The provision in Baker’s scheme of allowing a house of worship to ban guns by posting signs actually creates even more problems. Controlling the “welcome” message that congregations would have to post in prominent locations invites constitutional challenges. In fact, then-St. Louis Catholic Archbishop Robert J. Carlson threatened to sue if a similar bill passed in 2018.

“Pastors, rabbis, and religious leaders should not be compelled by the government to place signage in our sacred places prohibiting activity we may not want to allow on our own private property,” he said at a press conference with Jewish, Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, and other religious leaders.

Despite the overwhelming opposition from faith communities across the state, this bad bill keeps popping back up. Among the 40 people who submitted official testimony against Baker’s bill for Monday’s hearing were Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Presbyterian ministers; a Jewish rabbi; a representative from the Missouri Catholic Conference; and several others who identified themselves as a member of a religious congregation. And I’ve heard from pastors across the state who find this bill an offensive assault on their rights.

But Baker couldn’t name a single denominational group in the state supporting his measure. His faith in guns should not veto the clear public witness of numerous faith leaders. Baker’s remedy is clearly worse than the disease that isn’t even an ailment.

We have enough real problems for lawmakers to tackle this session without them trying to push guns into houses of worship. So, I pray they will defeat this dangerous bill.