A grassroots gun rights group had its argument turned on them Thursday as they tried to convince three judges that a year-old Georgia law infringes on gun owners' freedom of religion by putting restrictions on bringing their firearms with them to worship.
They were before a panel for the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asking them to stop the enforcement of a law that "bans" firearms at places of worship. They claim the law forces gun owners to choose between two constitutional rights -- the First Amendment protection of individual religious choices and the Second Amendment that guarantees the right to bear arms.
But Assistant Attorney General Laura Lones said GeorgiaCarry.org was misreading the law. She said guns can be brought into churches, synagogues and mosques with the approval of leaders of those institutions and as long as they secure their firearms, if it is requested.
The law lists eight places that guns cannot be brought -- government buildings, prisons and jails, nuclear power plants, bars without the owner's permission, state mental institutions, within 150 feet of a polling place and places of worship. Lones said that law, in another section, allows for guns to be brought into churches, synagogues and mosques if approved by leaders at those places.
"They have repeatedly referred to this as a ban. It's not a ban," Lones said.
Gun owners only have to "secure" the firearms they bring with them to services.
"Secure could mean keep it in a holster, keep it in your pocket," Lones said.
But one of the judges was skeptical of Lones' contention that the law makes that allowance.
"That's not what the plain language says," said Judge Ed Carnes. "Where is ‘go ahead, take it in, Just don't shoot anybody?'"
The lawsuit brought by GeorgiaCarry.org attacked the portion of a 2010 law that limited guns in "places of worship." The group is appealing a dismissal of their suit by Macon federal Judge C. Ashley Royal.
Royal wrote that there was no claim in the suit that religious beliefs require people to carry a firearm into a place of worship.
GeorgiaCarry.org, the Baptist Tabernacle of Thomaston Baptist, pastor Jonathan Wilkins and former GeorgiaCarry.org president Ed Stone filed this lawsuit last year. The suit named Georgia; Upson County, which is where Thomaston is located; the governor and Upson county manager Kyle Hood defendants.
GeorgiaCarry.org has been successful at legally chipping away at local and state restrictions on firearms. The group's current president said GeorgiaCarry.org next will push to have bans on weapons in government buildings and on college campuses removed.
The judges did not made a decision at the end of the Thursday arguments; one will come at a later date.