A Georgia gun-rights group asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday to resolve differing decisions on whether states can ban firearms in places of worship.
GeorgiaCarry.org asked for a hearing before the high court on the basis that there is a split among lower courts: the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that covers Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and the 11th U.S.Circuit Court of Appeals that includes Georgia, Florida and Alabama.
It is not known how quickly the justices will decide if they will hear the case.
The GeorgiaCarry.org case stems from a lawsuit filed after the 2010 Legislature replaced the prohibition against guns at “public gatherings” with a list of specific kinds of places where people cannot carry their firearms. One of those was places of worship. GeorgiaCarry.org and a Baptist minister from Thomaston said the prohibition interferes with the free exercise of religion promised in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The gun group lost its case in the trial court and again last summer when the 11th U.S. Circuit rejected the contention that worshippers had the constitutional right to arm themselves for their own protection while they are in a church, synagogue or a mosque. The appeals court also turned away a Second Amendment claim, writing that an individual right to carry a gun into a place of worship does not trump a private property owner’s right to “exclusively control who is allowed on the premises and under what circumstances.”
The filing with the Supreme Court argues that the ban that applies specifically to places of worship burdens “religiously motivated conduct … by regulating how or what a worshipper can do with a weapon while he is worshipping.”
“On the other hand, the same worshipper is not burdened at all in the carriage of his weapon when he goes to the bank, eats dinner and has cocktails at a restaurant, rides a city bus, or walks down the street,” the petition said. “In other words, when the conduct is purely secular and unrelated to place of worship, the carry ban does not apply. When the conduct is religiously motivated … the carry ban applies.”
The gun-rights advocates said the Atlanta-based federal appeals court had held that “states are free to inconvenience worshippers as worshippers as long as they do so in a secular way.”
One of the criteria the justices use in deciding if they will hear a case is whether federal appeals courts have come to conflicting opinions.
In this instance, GeorgiaCarry.org and its former president, the Baptist Tabernacle and the Rev. Jonathan Wilkins said in their petition that the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it is unconstitutional to discriminate against any “religiously- motivated conduct” in instances where it is not specific.
The petition also notes that the U.S. Supreme Court determined in a previous case that state lawmakers cannot “devise mechanisms, overt or disguised, [that are] designed to persecute or oppress a religion or its practices.”
According to the petition, this is what the Georgia law does.
“The carry ban is just the sort of ‘religious gerrymander’ this court must guard against,” it said. “It is not enough that the carry ban does not call out religious beliefs. It creates gerrymandered islands (places of worship) where otherwise permissible conduct becomes regulated or banned. This the state may not do.”