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Minnesota Annual Conference calls gun law unconstitutional

6/17/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

By Victoria Rebeck*

MINNEAPOLIS (UMNS)--Religious groups, including the United Methodist Minnesota Annual Conference, are challenging a recent law passed by the state of Minnesota that will allow licensed residents to carry concealed firearms wherever they wish-including church and school parking lots.

The law even allows people to carry guns into a house of worship without penalty if the house of worship does not follow an elaborate notification system.

Edina (Minn.) Community Lutheran Church was the first church to challenge the law on constitutional grounds. The church says the new Minnesota Citizens' Personal Protection Act -- commonly called the "conceal and carry law"-- tramples on their freedom of religious expression.

The Rev. Kent Johnson, pastor of Excelsior (Minn.) United Methodist Church, agreed. He asked the Minnesota Annual Conference--in session when the law went into effect May 28-to support the Edina church's complaint. After passionate debate expressing opposing positions, conference members voted to join other religious groups in the Edina church's lawsuit against the state.

"I am pretty certain we in the United Methodist Church are (on) different sides on this issue of concealed guns," Johnson said. "I also believe that whenever we have a chance to test the separation of church and state we should. I thought this was a good opportunity."

Minnesota Annual Conference's resolution cited four areas of concern: (1) restriction on churches' ability to prohibit firearms from its parking lots; (2) restriction on churches' freedom to prohibit tenants from allowing firearms in their leased space; (3) burdensome sign regulations; and (4) a burdensome "personal notification" requirement. The Edina Community Lutheran suit also advocates the right of religious organizations to prohibit employees from carrying firearms on official business.

"The issue is not just the right of sanctuaries to be gun-free, but also the offensiveness of forcing them to use state-mandated language," said Marian Saksena of Fredrikson and Byron, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and a member of Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis.

Saksena said the religious groups are challenging the law's compatibility with the Minnesota state constitution because Minnesota's protection of religious expression is more extensive than that of the U.S. Constitution.

Joining Edina Community Lutheran so far are the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, the Roman Catholic bishops in Minnesota, the Minneapolis Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota, a number of synagogues, a Zen Buddhist center, and the Temple of ECK (Eckankar), in Chanhassen, Minn.

Not wanting their religious expression curtailed while waiting for the suit to be heard, the plaintiffs took the unusual step of asking the court for a temporary restraining order.

"The situation is urgent," said the Rev. Jim Perry, Minnesota Annual Conference's director of ministries, "because vacation Bible schools will start soon. Many vacation Bible schools take place outdoors on church parking lots, and churches need to know they can keep their parking lots gun-free."

Judge Marilyn Brown Rosenbaum granted a temporary restraining order on June 6-but for only two of the groups' five concerns. First, the order relieves the plaintiffs of the law's detailed signage regulations. The law requires that signs state, "(Operator) Bans Guns in These Premises," use Arial type font in characters 1.5 inches high, print in black ink on a bright contrasting background, print on paper no smaller than 11 inch by 17 inch, and be posted at a specified height and specified distance from doors.

These requirements are in general burdensome, Saksena said. "Most signs I've seen around town don't seem to comply," she said. "Not everyone has access to Arial type font, or has a printer that can handle 11 inch by 17 inch paper. If your church's name is somewhat long, you will have to use paper even larger than the minimum required."

Furthermore, some of the plaintiffs wanted to use theological language on their sign. Edina Community Lutheran chose "Blessed are the Peacemakers: No Firearms Allowed in this Sanctuary."

Mount Zion Hebrew Congregation, another plaintiff, posts a sign that explains more fully the synagogue's policy: "Mount Zion Hebrew Congregation has joined with other religious congregations in opposition to Minnesota law regarding the carrying of concealed weapons, including its opposition to the mandated requirement to post signs prohibiting such weapons in and on its premises. Until such time as these matters are finally resolved, this notice is intended to serve whatever legitimate and reasonable provision may be required in this regard by the Minnesota Citizens' Personal Protection Act of 2003. 'Seek peace and pursue it. -- Psalm 34:15.' "

Rosenbaum also granted the plaintiffs relief from having to greet each visitor personally with the message that firearms are not allowed in their house of worship. The law is vague here; it requires that "the requester or its agent personally inform the person of the posted request and demand compliance."

"Many times people enter a church because it is a place for sanctuary and healing," said Perry. "The peacefulness of worship juxtaposed with the need to tell people that they can't carry in firearms and if they have them they must leave and return only after they dispose of them is jarring."

The judge also ruled that for the time being, the congregations do not have the right to prohibit tenants from bringing guns into their buildings. Edina Community Lutheran, like many United Methodist congregations in Minnesota, houses a nursery school. Strand said the law interferes with church's understanding of the gospel's imperative of peacemaking, and the church's concern for the safety of children.

"This is a slippery slope," Saksena said. "Religious liberty could be chipped away by this act. What next might the state require religious groups to post on their doors?

"The state has to allow religious organizations to comply in the least restrictive way," Saksena added. She points to states that allow houses of worship to adopt a policy that prohibits people from carrying a gun onto church property without the expressed permission of church officials.

Since the law went into effect, other groups, in addition to religious ones, have challenged the law on the grounds that it compromises, rather than protects, public safety. For example, the board of directors of Hennepin County, where Minneapolis is located, voted on June 11 to ban weapons from all county buildings, and cited public safety as the reason.

"My hope is that congregations will be able to ban guns from their premises if they desire," Johnson said, "and to do that in any way they like."

Victoria Rebeck is director of communications, Minnesota Annual Conference. This is a special report written for United Methodist News Service.

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