Bill to Allow Guns in Arkansas Churches Dies in Senate Panel

A Senate panel on Wednesday rejected a bill that would allow concealed handguns in churches after opponents complained that allowing firearms defies the notion that religious buildings are sanctuaries.

The Senate Judiciary Committee stalled the bill on a voice. The measure would have removed churches and other houses of worship from the list of places where concealed handguns are banned in Arkansas. Only churches and bars are on that list.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Beverly Pyle, R-Cedarville, told the panel after the vote that she may try again with the proposal. Gov. Mike Beebe has said he'd sign the bill if it made it to his desk.

Pyle said during the hearing that she wanted to give churches the option to allow firearms in their buildings. The House approved the measure earlier this month.

"This is not a gun question, it is a question of religious freedom," Pyle said.

The proposal divided religious leaders who appeared before the Senate panel.

Nathan Petty, a pastor at Beech Grove Baptist Church in Fordyce, said that churches should have the right to decide whether to allow concealed handguns.

"It's not the role of the state to preserve the sanctity of the church, and it's not the role of the state to impose religious judgment calls on churches," Petty said.

Debra Carl Freeman, pastor of Westover Hills Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, told lawmakers that the proposal went against the nature of churches.

"We believe this bill ... would fundamentally change the perception of sanctuaries in this state from places of safety, peace and openness into those of fear and suspicion," Freeman said.

One legislator opposed to the measure was Sen. Hank Wilkins IV, D-Pine Bluff, who is a Methodist pastor.

"I would have a great deal of concern, fear and trembling, not so much for my own safety, but for the safety and the message we sent to our congregants to even encourage or allow the carrying of firearms in a sacred place of worship," Wilkins said.

Sen. Sue Madison, D-Fayetteville, said she didn't see the need for the bill.

"I don't know of any church where the carrying of guns is a sacred belief intrinsic to the doctrine of that church, like the holding of communion might be," Madison said.