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New York church challenges state ban on firearms in houses of worship

The main campus of His Tabernacle Family Church in Horseheads, New York.
The main campus of His Tabernacle Family Church in Horseheads, New York. | Screenshot: Google Maps

A church in New York state has filed a lawsuit over a new law banning guns in houses of worship despite rising concerns about church security. 

The law firm First Liberty Institute has filed a lawsuit on behalf of His Tabernacle Family Church and Pastor Micheal Spencer. The lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York Thursday, challenges the state’s newly enacted Senate Bill S51001, which prohibits carrying firearms in “sensitive locations,” including houses of worship. 

The Democrat-controlled New York state Senate approved the measure on a party-line vote as the Democrat-controlled Assembly approved the bill over the opposition of nine Democrats and all Republicans. New York’s Democrat Gov. Kathy Hochul promptly signed it into law. 

The complaint suggests that by enacting Senate Bill S51001, New York state was disregarding two recent Supreme Court decisions finding that state laws and policies had infringed on its citizens’ First and Second Amendment rights. It specifically cited the court’s 2020 ruling in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, which determined that the state had imposed unconstitutional worship restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic and a 2022 ruling invalidating the state’s “exceedingly restrictive concealed-carry licensing regime.”

“Singling out houses of worship for total disarmament demonstrates hostility toward religion, leaves them defenseless to rebuff violent attacks, and defies at least two recent Supreme Court rulings against New York.” said First Liberty Senior Counsel Jordan Pratt In a statement shared with The Christian Post. “Religious leaders are no less qualified than secular business owners to determine whether to allow carrying a firearm for self-defense, and New York should end its defiant assault on First and Second Amendment freedoms.”

Erin Murphy of the law firm Clement & Murphy, which is also representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, added: “No American should be forced to sacrifice one constitutionally protected freedom to enjoy another. Houses of worship have a constitutionally protected freedom to decide for themselves whether to allow otherwise legally possessed firearms into their facilities.” 

One of the defendants in the lawsuit, First Deputy Superintendent of New York State Police Steven Nigrelli, warned that “if you violate this law, you will be arrested.”

Other defendants in the lawsuit are Chemung County District Attorney Weeden Wetmore and Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten, the top law enforcement officials in two of the three counties where His Tabernacle Family Church has campuses. The church has a third location in Mansfield, Pennsylvania, which is unaffected by New York's law. 

Spencer has a concealed carry permit and kept a firearm on him at both of his New York locations and the Pennsylvania campus before the new law took effect. He allowed his congregants to do the same until S51001 was enacted and continues to allow those attending services at the Pennsylvania location to carry firearms. 

The complaint noted Spencer’s concern that “someone planning to harm him or kill his flock will not be deterred by S51001, and may in fact be emboldened by it since it leaves houses of worship defenseless against those bent on doing violence to people of faith.” It stressed that “Pastor Spencer regularly receives threatening mail, and he has received at least two death threats that necessitated the involvement of law enforcement.”

“In one incident, an individual threatened to shoot Pastor Spencer and his late wife in the head with a .45 caliber pistol. In another, Pastor Spencer’s mentally disturbed neighbor made threats during and after a church service, then fired his gun while the pastor was at home,” the lawsuit added. “In addition to these threats targeted at Pastor Spencer himself, the Church has been burglarized and vandalized on multiple occasions.” 

In recent months, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organizationthat determined that the U.S. Constitution does not contain a right to abortion, churches have found themselves subject to varying degrees of vandalism, although no one has been hurt thus far. The lawsuit did not specify when the threats and vandalism directed at His Tabernacle Family Church and Spencer took place. 

In recent years, churches and houses of worship have found themselves subject to mass shootings. Most notably, a 2017 massacre at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, left more than a dozen people dead and nearly a dozen others injured.

Earlier this year, a Chinese man shot and killed one person and wounded four other churchgoers at the Taiwanese Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California. 

In 2015, Dylann Roof opened fire at an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine.

Synagogues have also become targets of mass shootings, with a 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a 2019 shooting at a synagogue in Poway, California, among the most prominent examples.

The lawsuit asks a judge to rule that the new law violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Second Amendment. It also seeks payment of the plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees and nominal damages.

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: ryan.foley@christianpost.com

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