More churches debating whether to allow guns

Local pastor: ‘I encourage anyone who has a license to carry a gun.’

The Rev. Lawrence Bishop II has given his blessing many times to congregants who ask to bring their guns into the Solid Rock Church in Monroe.

“We have lots of people who conceal-carry in our church,” he said. “From the choir, to the back of the church, to the sound man. I encourage anyone who has a license to carry a gun.”

But not all area church leaders are comfortable with allowing weapons in their houses of worship. At the Huber Mennonite Church in New Carlisle, where pacifism and non-resistance are among the church’s basic tenets, guns are not something that is normally accepted, said the Rev. Wendell Slagell, the church’s lead pastor.

But even there church leaders are currently discussing a policy toward firearms, Slagell said.

Churches have long been seen as a place of peace and refuge against a threatening world. But violent events in recent years have changed the debate over how to protect sacred spaces from violence, including whether to allow worshippers to carry guns.

Last year’s mass shooting in a Charleston, S.C., church resulted in calls for churches to allow people to carry in weapons, and Mississippi’s governor earlier this year signed a law that specifically allows people to bring guns to church.

When two Arab men began videotaping a Catholic service in Kettering recently, the pair from Saudi Arabia had only a camera. Some in the sanctuary, though, perceived danger and called police.

Ohio law

Ohio’s concealed-carry law generally bans guns in churches but allows firearms inside with a pastor or religious leader’s permission. At Solid Rock, a non-denominational Christian church, Bishop doesn’t hesitate to give that permission, which he says is for everyone’s safety. If those attending the prayer meeting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston had been armed, the outcome would be reversed, or at least lessened, he says.

The U.S. Justice Department is seeking the death penalty against Dylann Roof, a white supremacist accused of opening fire on a Bible study class at the church. Nine people died.

“I guarantee you he would have never got the second shot off if that would have been in our church because he would have been quickly met with return fire,” Bishop said. “I tell people if you don’t carry and something goes down, you better hit the floor. Because we have plenty of people that do.”

Asked if he packs while preaching, Bishop said: “It’s hard to say. I might be.”

After investigating the July 24 incident at Ascension Catholic Church, Kettering Police and church leaders said the Saudi Arabians who told investigators they were studying Christianity didn’t pose a physical threat.

“While their actions did arouse suspicion, we believe their actions were simply a breach of proper etiquette,” a statement on Ascension’s website read last week. “While current evidence suggests that they intended no ill will, the Kettering police and other appropriate agencies are continuing to thoroughly investigate the matter.”

Officials with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati said the Kettering incident has become part of a broader discussion about safety at churches. Archdiocese officials plan to create a comprehensive list of suggestions when it comes to safety at parishes, said Dan Andriacco, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

“However, we are aware of at least one law enforcement officer who carries a firearm when he participates in Mass at Ascension,” Andriacco wrote. “We believe that this is appropriate because of his responsibility as an officer.”

Any weapon in a church worries the Rev. Kristine Eggert, co-founder of God Before Guns, a coalition of people and faith communities based in northeast Ohio that lobbies to keep firearms out of churches.

“How tragic that situation could have been if the person carrying the gun would have fired. That would have been a horrible tragedy and points to me why we don’t need more guns in places,” Eggert said. “That could have just been a misunderstanding that could have been deadly.”

Eggert, the associate for care and justice at Old Stone Church in Cleveland, said her organization has opposed bills proposed in recent years in the Ohio legislature that would flip current law and explicitly allow firearms in churches, synagogues and mosques unless prohibited by each place of worship.

Anyone bent on killing who draws first and shoots first has the advantage, whether that occurs at a church, school, movie theater or shopping mall, she said.

“Just because someone else in the congregation has a gun does not mean they are going to necessarily be able to stop someone who enters and intends to do harm,” Eggert said.

‘To me that is a deterrent’

Chad D. Baus, secretary of the Buckeye Firearms Association, said responsible gun owners with valid concealed-carry permits provide a front line of defense for those who worship.

“We know that sometimes churches, school buildings, houses burn down. Because of that we have fire extinguishers in our churches and schools and our homes. We have flame retardant walls and sprinkler systems and all kinds of things because we know that sometimes fire comes,” he said. “We pray to God it never comes. But because we know it comes we take steps to prevent it and help it to end as fast as possible.”

First Christian Church, a 2,200-member megachurch in Springfield, has a security team as well as a Springfield Police officer the church pays to patrol during services, said Paul Slagle, director of administration.

Members of the team, who are licensed to carry concealed weapons, have been training together and been operational for more than 10 years, he said.

Slagle declined to comment on the number of security team members or whether they carry firearms, but he said the team has never had to respond to a serious threat. More often, team members are assisting congregants who lock keys in their cars, he said.

“They’re all trained and licensed,” Slagle said of the security team. “To me that is a deterrent.”

Changing times

The small Mennonite church in New Carlisle where Wendell Slagell is pastor has about 100 members. None have approached him about carrying a firearm, he said.

But he acknowledges that times are changing and so too are some attitudes about having weapons in church.

“As people become more concerned about this, I understand why churches have (security),” he said. “That’s kind of where I’m going to trust the protection that God says he’s going to offer.”

Staff Writer Lauren Clark contributed to this report.

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