Churches Not Complying with Legal Requirement to Ban Guns

Churches Not Complying with Legal Requirement to Ban Guns

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- No churches have registered with the state Bureau of Criminal Identification their intention to ban firearms, which means that under state law, any of the state's 50,000-plus residents with concealed-carry permits can legally pack heat in any house of worship.

Earlier this year an amendment to the concealed-carry law allowing religious organizations to prohibit guns inside houses of worship went into effect.

The church gun-ban provision can be invoked by clergy pronouncing the policy over the pulpit or in a newsletter or publishing it in a general-circulation newspaper. Clergy must also register with the BCI, which will post on its Web site a list of churches, synagogues and other houses of worship barring guns.

But the Web site's list is empty, saying only that "no churches have notified BCI of their intent to prohibit firearms on their premises."

"To me, that means the permit holders can carry in the church unless (the gun owners) have agreed not to carry," said Joyce Carter, BCI firearms section chief. "That would be my interpretation of the law."

Sen. Mike Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, sponsored the amendment. He agrees that state notification is required for the law to kick in, but assumed that churches might not know that.

"That's probably part of the reason," Waddoups said. "The other reason is I think it's not a big issue in some of their minds. But I think as soon as there is an incident, then it will become an issue."

An earlier version of the law required churches to post "no gun" signs. Churches still doing so are complying with the spirit but not the letter of the law, Waddoups said, but added he believed a gun ban should be legally recognized in such cases.

The Episcopal Diocese of Utah was one of the few faiths that posted signs banning guns under the old law and has been active in seeking legal recognition of its right to impose such restrictions.

"It would be inaccurate to interpret the lack of registration (with the state) as indifference on the part of churches which have been so adamant" in opposition to guns in houses of worship, said Dan Webster, diocese spokesman. "What it shows is that churches have been gearing up (for the holidays) and doing their regular work."

The Episcopal Diocese is planning to register its gun ban with the state, he said.

Dee Rowland, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Utah, said the requirement of state registration is offensive.

"We haven't dealt with it because we feel like it is common sense that one wouldn't bring a weapon to church," said Rowland. "That we have to take an action to invoke that is repulsive to me."

The Mormon church endorsed the amendment during the 2003 legislative session, said Waddoups and others familiar with the legislation. The change was added to a bill clarifying that concealed-carry permit holders can have guns in public schools.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is "evidently not" interested in invoking the legal prohibition, said Waddoups, "otherwise they'd be posted on the BCI Web site."

Top Mormon leaders several years ago issued a formal statement declaring that guns are not appropriate in houses of worship, although there is no mention of the issue in the handbook used by bishops of the faith.

Spokesman Dale Bills said Friday he had no immediate explanation of why the church has not invoked provisions of the law.

Gun-rights activist W. Clark Aposhian worked with Mormon church lobbyists in drafting the legislation, and expressed surprise that the denomination has taken no steps to legally trigger its own gun ban.

"Perhaps they have received enough input that they've decided this is an issue for another day," said Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Self-Defense Instructors Network. "Maybe they just don't see the need for it right now."

Aposhian disagrees with the notion that the state's registration requirement is offensive. "Otherwise, you have the government telling the church what it can or cannot do in its building. I don't like the government involved in religion."

Under the state's concealed weapons law and firearms act, concealed-weapon permit holders can carry their weapons "without restriction" except in areas that have security screening: large airports, prisons, jails and courtrooms.

In August, 3rd District Judge Robert Hilder ruled that the University of Utah's 25-year-old policy prohibiting firearms on campus does not run contrary to the law. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has filed notice that he will appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

The high court likely would not hear arguments in the matter until after next year's legislative session. Waddoups has said he will carry a bill further clarifying lawmakers' authority and intent in regulating when and where concealed weapons may be carried.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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