Clergy in Utah defy law that requires them to register a state gun ban

Posted: Friday, January 09, 2004

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Guns in the house of God? Unsurprisingly, clergy in Utah aren't fond of the idea.

But nearly four dozen leaders of Utah churches and synagogues say they also don't want to be forced to have a notice posted on a state-run Web site that announces they've placed a ban on firearms for their sanctuaries.

The interfaith alliance says a state law requiring that they notify state officials if they impose a gun ban constitutes undue government interference with religion.

''We don't think we need to be on a state list of who's allowed to be exempt from the gun law,'' said the Most Rev. George Niederauer, bishop of the Roman Catholic Church's Salt Lake Diocese.

Niederauer and several of his fellow religious leaders gathered recently in Salt Lake City to protest amendments added last year to the state's concealed weapons law.

The earlier version of the law said houses of worship could post signs notifying congregants that guns were banned from the premises.

State Sen. Mike Waddoups sponsored the amendments, that say if church officials announce a firearms ban verbally or in a church bulletin or newspaper, then they must also register their bans with the Bureau of Criminal Identification, which then posts the notice on the agency's Web site.

However, because of the law's wording, it could mean that if a church simply posts a sign prohibiting guns but never mentions it, then the clergy aren't required to notify the state. But no one seems to know for sure.

The clergy protest came after a newspaper reported that no churches had registered with the BCI about their intention to ban firearms.

Niederauer and others said they wanted to make clear they don't allow guns in church but also don't agree with the state's meddling.

''We do not need the state of Utah to give us permission to make such a statement or hold such a position,'' the religious leaders said in a joint statement.

Three churches Shepherd of the Mountains Lutheran Church in Park City, St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City and Summum Church of Salt Lake have registered with the BCI.

There have been isolated gun-related incidents at Utah churches over the years. Episcopal Rev. Gwyneth Murphy cited a brandishing incident a decade ago at St. Mark's Cathedral, and Presbyterian Rev. David Henry said he knew of two funerals that had been disrupted by threats on family members of those who died.

But it's not just the guns, they agreed. ''It's having to go to the state for permission to ban guns from houses of worship,'' Henry said.

No representatives of the Mormon church Utah's largest denomination signed the joint statement, but neither has the church registered with the BCI. A spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has pointed to a statement the church's governing First Presidency made three years ago that guns in church were ''inappropriate except as required by officers of the law.''

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

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.

Diocese representative Toni Marie Sutliffe proposed Tuesday in an e-mail to Waddoups an amendment to the law that would say churches would be considered off-limits to guns unless the churches said otherwise.

On Wednesday, Waddoups said he wouldn't support such a proposal. Churches, as private property, have the right to ban weapons but if they do ''they need to provide some sort of security,'' he said.

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

Waddoups said he fears people licensed to carry a concealed weapon could be surprised and perhaps subject to civil action should they bring a firearm to church without knowing of its gun ban.

A church would have to announce its ban weekly, from the pulpit or perhaps in a church bulletin, he said. ''If you told it over your pulpit a month ago, how would I know?'' he said.

As for the requirement to register with BCI, ''that was just intended to help them,'' Waddoups said. ''If they don't like it, let's get rid of it.''

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