An opinion released today by the Arkansas Attorney General says “no.” Like most states, Arkansas allows adults to obtain a permit to carry a concealed handgun for lawful purposes, after passing a background check and safety class. Like a few states, Arkansas prohibits licensed carry in “Any church or other place of worship.”
In short, the AG opinion says that there is no Free Exercise violation because the statute does not (at least facially) hinder the exercise of religion. Further, the statute is one of general applicability, and does not single out religion for different treatment, because the Arkansas conceald handgun license (CHL) statute also bans CHL in some other locations. The opinon suggests that what these disparate places have in common is that they are likely to be crowded.
There is no Establishment Clause violation because the CHL in churches ban does not appear, facially, to favor one sect or denomination over another. (The AG opinion and this post both use “churches” to include synagogues, mosques, and all other houses of worship of various religions.)
The AG opinion strongly emphasizes that the issue is one of first impression, and that a full legal resolution of the issue might well require fact-finding. The purpose of an Attorney General opinion is only facial review, and not the kind of fact-finding that a court might engage in.
Given the self-declared limited scope of the AG opinion, its tentative legal conclusions are plausible. However, I think that if we broaden our view a little bit–in either a court of law, or the court of public opinion–there do appear to be some potential violations of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses.
Two preliminary caveats: First, neither the AG opinion nor this post address whether the church ban violates the right to arms clause of the Arkansas Constitution, or the Second Amendment. I expect that an argument on right to arms grounds would probably involve the rights of almost any landowner to choose to allow licensed carry on his/her/its property; the argument would not be specific to churches as landowners.
Second, as demonstrated by litigation in Minnesota, some churches consider it an intolerable burden on their free exercise of religion if, in order to exclude licensed gun owners, they must post a “no guns” sign similar to signs that ordinary businesses in the state routinely post in order to exclude licensed carry. I presume that a way can be found to accomodate their twin desires for “no guns” and “no signs” and that this accomodation does not require banning guns from churches that want to allow carry. For example, a statute could presumptively ban guns at churches, and then allow individual churches to opt out by posting a “licensed gun owners are welcome” sign. Or a church could be allowed to authorize carry by specific persons who received a letter of authorization from the church. ...
The Arkansas Attorney General's opinion is available here.