To: Energy and Natural Resources Committee
From: Christopher T. Dodson, Executive Director
Subject: House Bill 1273 - Guns in Churches and Places of Worship

The North Dakota Catholic Conference opposes House Bill 1273 as a dual infringement upon religious freedom.

Existing law in North Dakota strikes a good balance between the interests of those who wish to have firearms within churches and the religious and private property rights of religious organizations. The existing law allows an individual to have a dangerous weapon in a place of worship if the individual meets certain requirements and has permission from the church or place of worship. It is a workable law that allows firearms but does not negate the religious organization’s fundamental right to define their own sacred spaces as it chooses.

House Bill 1273 erases that balance and allows the individual with a dangerous weapon to disrespect the wishes of the religious organization. It destroys the carefully designed compromise and tosses aside the religious and property rights of the place of worship.

Essential to the concept of religious liberty is the recognition that churches have a fundamental right to use and care for their properties in a manner that reflects and furthers their own religious missions. If they believe that guns in churches do not reflect that mission, they have a right to prohibit them. Indeed, our country has many faith traditions, especially the so-called “peace churches,” that disavow all weapons, even for defensive purposes. Those churches might find offensive the very notion of a weapon within their worship space. They should have that right.

Supporters of House Bill 1273 will point out that the bill allows a church to prohibit firearms if the church posts notices of the prohibition at every entrance. This provision, however, is the bill’s second affront to religious freedom. Quite simply, the government has no business telling a place of worship how to design or adorn its worship environment. (1) In many religious traditions, the architecture of a worship space is an extension of adherents’ beliefs.

Doors and entryways, in particular, fall into this category. Christ said, “I am the door.”(2) Since the beginning of Christianity, doors and entryways have had significance in Christian architecture. For Lutherans, Martin Luther‘s act of nailing the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany became a defining moment and to this day some Lutheran churches reserve the doors for only important religious messages. (3)

The Catholic Church just finished celebrating a Jubilee year during which every diocese in the world designated certain doors as “Holy Doors.” Passing through them symbolized that we were passing through Christ the Door, and into the holy. To blemish them and their surrounding areas with non-religious government postings would be, literally, disgraceful.

It might also be unconstitutional. A court in another state struck down a similar law, holding that a requirement that churches post firearm prohibition signs impermissibly infringed upon the religious rights of churches to use their property to further their religious missions. (4)

The great thing about religious freedom is that it means that we can practice our religious beliefs, including the acts of creating, designing, and exercising autonomy over our religious spaces without the approval of others. Some people have no problem with firearms in churches. To others the very idea is blasphemous. Many more probably fall somewhere in between. The existing law strikes a balance that respects the varying religious views on the matter.

Similarly, some places of worship would have no problem with posting prohibition signs at entries. To others the very idea is blasphemous or would be seen as creating an environment contrary to their beliefs. Many more probably fall somewhere in between. It is not a proper function of the state to dictate what all places of worship must do just because other places of worship do not object.

We respectfully request that House Bill 1273 given a Do Not Pass recommendation.

(1) The North Dakota Catholic Conference recognizes that there are some circumstances, such as the placement of exit signs or fire sprinkler systems, when the state can dictate the placement of nonreligious items. Those requirements, however, should further a legitimate and compelling governmental interest and be narrowly tailored to achieve that purpose.

(2) Jn 10:7,9. cf. Rev 3:20.

(3) See Edina Community Lutheran Church v. State of Minnesota, (MN Ct. App., Feb. 5, 2008)

(4) Id.