By Kristina Torres, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ATLANTA — Some of Georgia’s highest-profile religious leaders took an extra step this week to oppose what they see as an overzealous expansion of the state’s new gun laws, with authorities over many of the state’s Episcopal and Catholic churches announcing that their sanctuaries would ban all weapons.
More are likely to follow suit, as the more than 260-member interfaith clergy coalition opposed to House Bill 60 said it will act in response to Governor Nathan Deal’s signing of the new legislation in April.
The very public expressions of displeasure — at least one member described the legislation as “the worst bill passed this year” — have been unusual in that they are not required. The new law, which takes effect July 1, assumes no action by religious leaders will be required unless an individual place of worship decides to allow entry to someone carrying a gun.
They are also not universal, with tension among the state’s faith leaders exposing a deep divide across the state. Those that supported the legislation, most notably the Georgia Baptist Convention, cheered the ability of individual church communities to decide for themselves whether to allow guns through their doors.
Those who opposed the measure have claimed a moral victory about raising awareness about the measure and said they are likely to carry that message to the pulpit.
“We want people of faith to be aware of it, to vote their conscience and make their voices heard,” said the Rev. Pam Driesell, the senior pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. “I think more Georgians are aware of what happened because of our efforts and the efforts of others. I think they’re paying attention now and want to be a forces for a more peaceful vision.
Dubbed the “guns everywhere” legislation by opponents, HB 60 passed on the final day of this year’s legislative session and expands the list of places where Georgians may legally carry firearms to include schools, bars and government buildings.
It also for the first time expressly permits licensed concealed-weapons holders to bring firearms into churches, provided that an individual place of worship allows it. The legislation reduces the penalty to a $100 fine for licensed gun holders caught in off-limits sanctuaries.
“We certainly respect the right of other denominations and churches to be able to express themselves about what they believe,” said Georgia Baptist Convention spokesman Mike Griffin, whose denomination represents 3,600 churches and 1.4 million members statewide.
The convention, Griffin said Friday, “is not for or against weapons in churches. We’re thankful our churches are going to get the opportunity to decide for themselves.”
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, in contrast, oversees a Catholic population estimated at 1 million in metro Atlanta and the northern half of the state. He strongly opposed the measure along with Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, whose Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah represents South Georgia.
“Rather than making guns more available as a solution, we need leaders in government and society who will speak against violence in all aspects of life and who teach ways of reconciliation and peace and who make justice, not vengeance, our goal,” Gregory wrote in a column published online Thursday afternoon in the Georgia Bulletin.
Similar to a directive issued Monday by Bishop Robert Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, Gregory told church leaders and parishioners that the only exception to the church’s policy will be on-duty law enforcement officers.
It is a similar mandate to one expected to be approved in the coming week by the board of The Temple synagogue in Atlanta, which is the largest in Georgia with more than 1,500 families.
Temple Rabbi Peter Berg called the legislation “embarrassing” and “hands-down the worst bill passed this year.” Still, he too said it was a wake-up call for religious leaders and others who in the past may not have paid close attention to state politics or policy.
“What I’ve found is the people I’ve spoken with, regardless of their political party, are ready to say ‘enough,’ ” Berg said. “This has to get fixed.”
Photo: brian.ch via Flickr