Arkansas Pastors Divided Over Packing Heat in Church

Arkansas pastors may soon have to worry about more than their flocks' spiritual battles. After a number of shootings in churches nationwide, should congregants be allowed to bring concealed weapons into their sanctuaries?

Under current Arkansas law, holders of concealed weapons permits can take their guns anywhere they want except bars and houses of worship. A bill in the state Senate would let churches decide for themselves whether weapons should be allowed.

"I believe it would disturb the sanctity and tranquility of church" said Pastor John Phillips, a bill opponent who was shot twice in the back as he finished a service 23 years ago. If a church opts out, "Do you want ushers to stop you at the door and frisk you?"

The bill's supporters say the issue isn't gun rights but a constitutionally protected right for churches to set their own rules. Opponents say worshippers should be allowed to pray without worrying whether the person next to them is armed.

Nathan Petty, a pastor at Beech Grove Baptist Church in Fordyce, has presented to legislators a petition from 40 preachers who support the bill.

"It's not about gun rights, it's about church rights," Petty said. "Is it right for the state to make that decision for the church?"

Phillips said there could have been carnage at his Ward Chapel Church in Little Rock if someone else had been armed when he was attacked by a parishioner's relative for a still-unknown reason.

"People are not going to react the way they think they're going to react in the heat of the moment. It was utter chaos when I was shot," said Phillips, who still carries one of the bullets in his body.

The bill, by Republican Rep. Beverly Pyle, passed the House on Wednesday and is pending before a Senate committee.

Grant Exton, the executive director of the Arkansas Concealed Carry Association, said allowing concealed weapons would not make churches more likely to have volatile situations — but adds that that is not his point.

"It's a problem of (the government) telling churches what to do in an area of moral issue, where that should be none of their business," Exton said. Of 48 states that allow concealed carry, 42 let churches make the decision, Exton said.

"We have the government in an area that it shouldn't be," he said.

If the current law is not changed, it is subject to a challenge on constitutional grounds, said John DiPippa, the interim dean at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Law.

A law prohibiting guns from places of worship is similar to a law requiring that churches permit guns, because the government is forcing a decision on a religious institution based on moral grounds, he said. "On the religious argument, you could make the same claim in both directions."

Religious leaders have a responsibility to protect their congregations both spiritually and physically, said Mark DeYmaz, a pastor at Mosaic Church in Little Rock. He opposes allowing guns in churches but said each religious establishment must decide for itself.

"A good shepherd would not allow a wolf near his flock," said DeYmaz, whose church is located in one of the city's tougher areas.

After a man in Colorado went on a shooting spree at two religious facilities in 2007, DeYmaz' community established "the Mosaic Watchmen," a group of ushers trained in security measures but designed to uphold the church's image as a sacred place — not an armed church.

"We're there to be a light in the community, and we don't like the image that would give us," DeYmaz said.