Many places of worship in the Augusta area will not allow firearms to be brought on premises even though Georgia law allows a wide expansion of the state’s gun laws beginning July 1, according to their leaders.
Some religious groups, however, told The Augusta Chronicle that they are leaving the decision to allow or restrict guns use up to individual churches.
Dubbed the “guns everywhere” legislation by opponents, House Bill 60 passed on the final day of this year’s legislative session and expands where Georgians may legally carry firearms, including schools, bars and government buildings. Gov. Nathan Deal signed the 2014 Safe Carry Protection Act into law last month.
The new law expressly permits licensed concealed-weapons holders to take firearms into churches, provided an individual place of worship allows it. The legislation reduces the penalty for licensed gun holders caught in off-limits sanctuaries to a $100 fine.
“Each church will make that decision for themself,” said Dwayne Boudreaux, the director of missions for the Augusta Association of Baptist Churches. “We as an association of 56 churches and five missions have no collective plan of action. … Following the law is of utmost importance.”
The association is not the only group to take such an approach to the new law. The Northeast Georgia Presbytery, which includes Augusta, has not taken an official action or position on the bill, nor has any of its more than 100 ministers and roughly 55 churches asked for clarity in reaction to the law.
The Rev. Joe Berry, the stated clerk for the presbytery, said more information might be provided at a meeting next week. He said the presbytery currently does not have a policy prohibiting weapons at churches but said the congregation assumes its parishioners know not to take firearms to church.
“I would be opposed to people bringing firearms into places of worship,” Berry said. “It seems to me that the use of firearms is the use of deadly force, and I am unaware of any particular threat that would require people to use deadly force. Right now, if there is some type of incident of a perilous nature in a worship service at a sanctuary or church, you can call 911 and get the police out there who are trained to handle the matter.”
Berry is among more than 200 religious leaders in Georgia who have opposed the measure, including Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory. The Diocese of Savannah, which includes Augusta churches, will join the Archdiocese of Atlanta to formulate a policy before July 1 to restrict guns in Catholic institutions to law enforcement officials, said Barbara King, the director of communications.
The Augusta District of the United Methodist Church already has passed a resolution declaring each of its churches a “weapon-free zone” in accordance with the facilities’ “traditional role as a place of safety and sanctuary.”
Terry Fleming, the Augusta District superintendent, said the north Georgia annual conference has affirmed the resolution, and for years opposed legislation that would allow concealed weapons in houses of worship for anyone other than law enforcement officers.
The resolution quoted Isaiah 2:4, stating: “God will judge between the nations and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then, they will beat their swords into iron plows and spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war.”
The Islamic Society of Augusta plans to put signs inside and around its mosque and community center for its congregation to know it will also be a weapon-free zone, said President Taufiq Lakhany.
“We will honor the law and respect it, but within places of prayer, we will restrict and not allow any concealed weapons to be brought on the premises,” Lakhany said. “If they have (a weapon), they can leave it locked in their car.”
Lakhany said the Islamic Society has never had any problems with gun use, but because the law has been passed and brought into the public eye, the society is informing the congregation of its position.
“To bear arms, it’s a right, but bringing weapons into places of worship, where people come for prayer, you leave everything else behind,” he said.