To: House Energy and Natural Resources
From: Christopher T. Dodson, Executive Director
Subject: House Bill 1241 Firearms
Date: January 22, 2015

The North Dakota Catholic Conference opposes House Bill 1241 because of Sections 3 and 4 of the bill.

Concerning Section 4, you have already heard testimony from health care providers on why prohibiting health care providers from inquiring about a patient’s access to firearms interferes with their professional and legal responsibilities to determine risks. On behalf of the Catholic hospitals and other health care providers in the state, we concur with those concerns.

We also oppose Section 3’s provisions as they relate to churches.

Currently, an individual may not bring a firearm or dangerous weapon to a “public gathering,” which includes churches and church functions, unless the individual has a valid class 1 concealed license and has the approval of the church. This law strikes a proper balance that recognizes a church’s right to decide what is best for its members and staff and is consistent with its traditions and tenets. House Bill 1241 would remove this balance and allow anyone to bring a firearm or dangerous weapon into a church, even if doing so is not approved by the church and even if doing so would be contradictory to the church’s religious tenets.

There are several problems presented by this change.

First, there is no rational reason why churches should be given any less protection under the law than other public gatherings such as schools and athletic and sporting events. Schools and sporting events are, like church functions, public gatherings. Some may look at the proposed change as giving more rights to individuals at churches, but it actually gives less protection to the affected churches. The purpose of the public gathering law is to protect people by making it a crime to bring a firearm or dangerous weapon to the gathering, presumably because it increases the likelihood of harm occurring.
Whether that presumption is valid is a matter of debate. Nevertheless, it exists in the law and would remain in the law even with HB 1241. There is no rational reason, however, why churches should be given less of this presumed protection than schools and sporting events.

Second, the change would also provide less legal protection by removing recourse for the church if someone comes onto the premises with a firearm without permission. Currently, if a church has a policy prohibiting firearms and that policy is violated, the church leader can call law enforcement. If HB 1241 were to pass, the church leader’s only option would be to ask the individual to leave. If he or she does not, there is not much else the church leader could do.

A recent event provides an example. Following last session’s change in the law, Bishop David Kagan instructed the Catholic parishes of the Diocese of Bismarck that parishes would not be allowed to have firearms on the premises. On November 2, 2013, a man walked into St. Michael’s parish in Ray carrying a shotgun during mass. He proceeded to rob the parishioners and was later arrested for armed robbery.

Suppose, however, that the man sat down in a pew with the shotgun in his hands. If HB 1241 was in effect, the priest presiding would not have had many options. A parishioner could slip out and use a cell phone to call the local sheriff, but it is not clear whether a crime would have been committed to warrant a response by the sheriff. The present law provides a recourse and would allow local law enforcement to act.

Third, by removing any legal prohibitions on bringing a firearm into a church without permission, HB 1241 could be interpreted as giving a right to bring a firearm into a church. This raises serious issues concerning religious freedoms. Some churches have a long history of opposition to firearms and violence. The current law allows them to apply their beliefs within their grounds of their own churches. HB 1241 removes that ability and unduly and possibly unconstitutionally infringes upon their freedom to create and maintain a worship environment consistent with their beliefs.

We urge a Do Not Pass recommendation on HB 1241.