HEA 34 (HB 141) is not a gun bill; it is a government bill. “Concealed Weapons in Places of Worship” is not about whether concealed weapons will be in places of worship or not. It is about whether church or state decides the matter, and whether it is enforced by guns or by the Word of God.
Short of armed guards and metal detectors, the only people who can keep guns out of the sanctuary are the worshipers themselves. This is as obviously true as it is routinely forgotten.
Worshipers whose piety prohibits armaments in the house of God will empty purses and pockets of knives and guns without being asked. Those who see no conflict between piety and what is in their purse may or may not be corrected by church authorities.
It is an entirely different matter when the state enacts a law. These neither depend on religious sensibilities, nor on respect for sacred spaces and clergy. Rather, state laws rest upon the threat of fines and incarceration. Such threats may or may not persuade worshipers to leave weapons at home. But they definitely do invite secular power into the church.
Laws and rules can only accomplish two things. 1) They can instruct people about what behavior is expected. 2) They authorize punishment and correction for those who are caught breaking them.
When the church sets the rules, it remains clear that the church retains both the teaching authority and the enforcement of the rules. State laws — even those in complete agreement with church rules — assert that the state has teaching authority in the house of God, and necessarily transfer the enforcement authority from the church to the state.
That’s what current Wyoming law does. It brings the state inside the walls of churches, stake houses and synagogues. It requires the “chief administrator” of a church to write a permit for anyone with a weapon. If he fails to do this, law enforcement officials are automatically authorized to arrest the carrier and punish him or her with a $750 fine and six months in jail.
Of course, nobody objects to a church’s authority to institute and enforce a weapons ban. The problem is that when the state makes the decision, it must also enforce it, stripping the church of its proper enforcement authority.
To see the problem, just imagine if the state did the same thing in every house. Instead of letting homeowners make and enforce their own rules, what if the state decreed that if any person carried a weapon into a home without written permission, the police could enter that home and arrest the perpetrator—even if the homeowner isn’t bothered by the weapon, but simply forgot to write a permission slip. That is exactly how current Wyoming statute treats houses of worship. HB 141 was introduced to right this wrong.
The “Principle of Subsidiarity” involved here is precisely why the U.S. Constitution was written to limit the power of the state. Alexis de Tocqueville observed this principle at work in communities across America as he reports in his classic study “Democracy in America.”
The term “Subsidiarity” was coined by the First Vatican Council in 1891. It means that “a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level” (Oxford English Dictionary). Simply put, the state should never make a law if the issue can be handled perfectly well by the church or family.
This doctrine recognizes that families and churches are the most basic building blocks of society. It recognizes that flourishing societies are made up of individuals, families, churches and various mediating institutions that have robust self-governance. Every decision that could be made at a local level, but is usurped by a higher level of governance, weakens families, churches and ultimately society itself.
The application of the Second Amendment within houses of worship is just exactly one such decision. Do we really think that a priest, bishop or pastor is powerless to enforce the gun policy of a congregation? Do we think that elders, parish councils or stake presidencies are too ham-handed to decide a sensible policy, faithful to the Scriptures that they preach?
While current law does allow the decision to be overridden by the local parish council, it does not allow for enforcement to be reclaimed by the local church authority. This creates serious unintended consequences.
If a woman’s purse accidently falls off the pew and spills out a gun carried for self-defense, the local pastor or priest would normally have any number of sensitive and discreet options to deal with the sticky situation. These options might range from privately asking her to exercise more care to publicly assuring the congregation that she will lock the gun in the car from now on. He can even call law enforcement and ask for assistance.
But under current law, those options can be denied. She has technically broken the law and may be fined up to $750 and be incarcerated for six months. The decision about whether or not to press these charges lies not with the local parish but with the local prosecutor. Suddenly, an indiscretion that could easily have been handled in-house can be blown out of proportion by anybody who wants to enforce the letter of the law.
As I write these words, I am remembering a group of courageous and principled Trappist monks who died as martyrs near Mt. Atlas, Algeria, in 1996. Their story is told in a beautiful movie called “Of Gods and Men.”
As a civil war swept the nation, their monastery became increasingly vulnerable to attack. Local officials begged them to leave for their own safety. The monks, out of love for the local village, refused. The Algerian government, in a final bid to keep the monks safe, wanted to station troops to protect the monastery with guns. The monks refused even this.
They were kidnapped on March 27, almost 22 years ago, and beheaded on May 21. The movie won the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. It powerfully illustrates both of the principles involved in HB 141.
By refusing to weaponize the monastery, the monks voluntarily applied their doctrine to the difficult situation they faced. Not all will choose their course of action, but all should have the freedom to do so.
Self-sacrificial love is a deliberate, personal choice to follow in the footsteps of God. The less it is self-consciously chosen, the less it is like Christ. Government intervention in matters pertaining to the house of God undermine faith, whether that intervention happens to agree with a person’s faith, or not.
Gov. Matt Mead’s signature on HEA 34 (HB 141) should not be understood as state approval of guns in the house of God. It is the very opposite of the state enforcing its opinion over church matters. By repealing a bad statute, it correctly renounces any state authority over otherwise-lawful activities in places of worship, and recognizes that the church, and only the church, should teach and enforce rules on church property.