State Politics

Coast religious leaders split on armed guards in places of worship

 Rabbi Akiva Hall with Chabad of Southern Mississippi explains the significance of the menorah as he prepares for Hanukkah.
JEFF CLARK/SUN HERALD Rabbi Akiva Hall with Chabad of Southern Mississippi explains the significance of the menorah as he prepares for Hanukkah.

Reactions among religious leaders on the Coast to a bill that would provide for armed guards at places of worship followed largely the same tenor of the state Senate's debate over the measure.

The Senate passed the Mississippi Church Protection Act on Tuesday by a 36-14 vote. It was an amended version of the bill the state House passed last week and now goes back to the House for further work.

Under the bill, places of worship could designate members to carry firearms to protect the congregation. Those members would undergo additional training and be afforded legal protection.

The same bill includes other provisions, such as expanding a law passed last year allowing people to carry guns in purses or briefcases without a concealed-carry permit but adding holsters to that list. The measure also challenges the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution by asserting no state official could enforce any federal executive order or administrative rule that violates the constitutions of Mississippi or the nation.

But the issue of guns and security in churches is what has drawn the most attention and the bulk of the debate, with most senators and religious leaders alike welcoming the measure while some bemoaned what it seemed to indicate.

Patrick Sanders, rector of St. Peter's by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Gulfport, said he wasn't necessarily against the bill, but said it exposes a common tug-of-war in the religious community.

"It confuses me because I think we have to do two things simultaneously. We have to teach people to be disciples, how to do the work of God in the world, and we have to maintain a safe environment in which to do that. And that is a constant tension," he said. "If you start putting walls up, barriers up, guards at the gate with guns, then you're not welcoming all. You're locking people out, scaring people away from a church that proclaims love and hospitality."

On the Coast, several other religious leaders said they would institute armed guards should the bill become law.

"In Judaism, we believe very firmly that a life is the most important thing," said Rabbi Akiva Hall of Chabad House. "We can't let fear stop us from living a happy, prosperous, religious life.

"Take a measure like this. The easy answer to fear is to stay home. That's a victory for those who want to harm us. Anything we can do to protect life and quality of life is very important."

Hall also noted armed guards are common in European synagogues, where anti-Semitic incidents have been on the rise -- though those guards are not members of the congregation.

"It's a wonderful idea for all houses of worship, but historically Jewish people have been even a little bit more of a target," he said. "It's great to relax the bureaucracy around gun control and take proactive steps to make people feel safe."

Tom Mims, lead pastor at Life Church in Gulfport, is also in favor of the bill.

He said he saw a TV report Wednesday morning about a man who had entered a Memphis church on Easter with several firearms in his bag. No shots were fired and no one was wounded, but the incident was just the latest in a worrying trend, he said.

"With all the violence going on that I've heard about in churches in the last year, with pastors that have been shot or members shot, I think this is necessary," he said.

Life Church has some security measures in place, including having some members stationed to intercept anyone who tries to rush the stage.

Mims said he would want anyone who is armed to be properly trained.

"Whoever would do it, we'd want them to be trained by law enforcement officials," he said. "We don't want just anybody to have guns in church."

Sanders, of St. Peter's by-the-Sea, said he could understand why some people would see the need for armed guards -- but he wasn't sure about it.

"You can call it necessary, you can call it safe, you can call it prudent, you can call it whatever you need to call it. And all those things can be true because the world is getting dangerous so we might need some people with guns as we train to be disciples," he said. "But we can't do it and call it gospel."