Concealed carry law tests whether guns, God mix
BY FRANCINE KNOWLES Religion Reporter February 28, 2014 10:04PM
Updated: April 3, 2014 6:12AM
At Trinity Lutheran Church in Des Plaines, signs are posted informing those seeking to enter that guns are prohibited.
But pistol-packing parishioners are permitted in the pews at Living Water Church in Cahokia, Ill.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Conference of Illinois — the public policy arm of Catholic bishops here — and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Metropolitan Chicago Synod, which represents 200 congregations, have issued no directives requiring churches to allow or prohibit handguns. The decision is being left up to individual churches.
“The pastors deserve the discretion of what’s best to do to meet the needs of their local parishioners,” said Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference.
“Generally [in the Chicago metropolitan area], I would say most of the pastors do not want firearms within their walls. But as you get in other parts of the state, that’s not necessarily the case.”
With concealed carry legislation in effect — for the first time enabling Illinois residents with state-issued licenses to legally carry concealed, loaded handguns — religious leaders across denominations have to decide whether to allow the weapons in their houses of worship.
But with the first licenses expected to be mailed this week, many of the leaders have done nothing and many are unaware they have to decide. More than 42,300 license applications have been received statewide so far, according to the Illinois State Police.
At a February meeting of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, many members were surprised to learn the law does not include places of worship among sites where concealed weapons are automatically prohibited. So said Rev. Paul Rutgers, co-executive director of the council, which includes faith leaders from African Methodist Episcopalians to Sikhs.
Many also were not aware that to legally keep guns out of their institutions, they’re must post signs that meet state requirements, Rutgers said.
But after council members were brought up to speed on the law, “there was overwhelming rejection of the idea that guns should be allowed in places of worship,” Rutgers said. “I think the group will take whatever action is appropriate to fight against that and add houses of worship into the list” of places where guns are prohibited, he added.
Gilligan said the Catholic Conference is supporting legislation filed in February by Sen. Dan Kotowski, D-Park Ridge, that would automatically prohibit handguns in places of worship without the need for signs.
But the Rev. Cory Respondek, pastor of the roughly 35-member Living Water Church, sees no problem with allowing guns in his church.
“I myself have carried in the church before,” he said. “If people are legally [carrying], we have no issue with that.
“We believe in the protection of Jesus Christ. But we also understand that we live in an evil world, and we feel that it’s in our best interest [to allow handguns] in the event someone is wanting to do harm to our congregation.”
The Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview and New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood have decided not to allow guns.
“We just don’t want people coming in packing,” said the Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church, which has about 800 active members. “It’s antithetical to what we stand for. We want the sanctuary to be a sanctuary. Our neighborhood has had violence issues, so we want to be an oasis from that.”
He said the church will soon be putting up signs.
Signs are already up at St. Sabina Catholic church. Its pastor, Michael Pfleger, an anti-gun advocate, contended, “The church ought to be the prophetic voice that says guns are not needed. If we are people of faith that say we believe that God is our protection, and God watches over us, if we preach and teach all of this stuff, what is the gun for, just in case God isn’t going to do His thing?”
At United Methodist churches in Illinois, there is a denominational directive, so no-handgun signs will go up.
“Every United Methodist Church is officially declared a weapon-free zone,” and that dates back to a resolution adopted by the denomination in 2008, said the Rev. Phil Blackwell, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple.
The resolution was adopted to reflect the UMC’s traditional role of safety and sanctuary, he said.
Blackwell is frustrated that places of worship aren’t automatically shielded and said the signs send the wrong signal to visitors. He notes the Chicago Temple is part of Chicago architecture tours.
“We’ll have 6,000 or 7,000 people a year just come to the building to look at the architecture,” he said. “We have a tour everyday, and probably a quarter of those people are from other parts of the world. It’s so embarrassing. . . . For us to [post] the no-gun sign . . . is just such a sad commentary. I’m ashamed of those signs.”
While no edicts have been issued by the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the synod has informed members of steps to take if they decide to ban guns, said Wayne Miller, bishop of the synod. He added the ELCA has had a social position for more than 20 years on community violence, and it advocates restricting gun purchases and gun use.
“I feel pretty confident in telling you that there is broad consensus . . . that we do not want weapons in or anywhere around our congregations,” Miller said.
But he also sees the signage as a problem. “If you do post the signs, then the message you’re sending to everyone is, ‘Gee, I wonder if anyone is carrying a gun.’ In some ways, by making people aware of the possibility, you actually raise anxiety.”