A Catholic diocese in Texas is taking a stand against the state’s new open carry laws by banning guns in churches — even if they are publicly displayed — and putting up “no guns” signs on religious buildings.
The decision comes 10 days after new legislation took effect in Texas allowing nearly a million residents with active state-issued licenses to openly carry a firearm on their person. The new law, which upended a ban on publicly displaying guns that dates back to 1871, was celebrated by gun owners who gathered at the Texas statehouse on New Years Eve to proudly display their weaponry when the clock struck midnight.
But for El Paso Diocese Chancellor Patricia Fierro, the shift brought potentially dangerous challenges for her congregations. Her office received complaints from parishioners expressing concern that their fellow worshippers were now attending mass with firearms, prompting diocesan leadership to decide last week to ban guns in churches.
“We’ve always talked about having a safe environment [in church],” Fierro told ThinkProgress. “We just thought that most of our parishioners would want to go to mass without fear that the person next to them is carrying a gun.”
The Texas law requires businesses and churches that oppose open carry on their property to erect signs saying as such, and Fierro said the diocese has ordered placards for congregations to begin putting in place this week.
She also noted that while the diocese hasn’t issued any formal statement on the new open carry legislation, she personally opposes it, and made mention of laws that will allow concealed guns on Texas college campuses.
“I have a son at the university of Texas at El Paso, and they can carry guns on campuses,” she said, expressing concern for his safety as a parent.
The diocese’s decision mirrors that of other churches in Georgia and Illinois, where Catholic organizations and other religious institutions have banned firearms in worship spaces as states have expanded gun laws. Most of these faith groups have cited ideological or theological opposition to laws that enhance the presence of guns, and religious leaders have long been some of the loudest voices calling for laws to regulate the use and sale of firearms.
But their concern is also practical, as houses of worship have fallen victim to a number of church shootings in recent years. Beginning in 2012, nine African Americans were shot and killed last year by white supremacist Dylann Roof in South Carolina, seven people were murdered in 2013 at a Wisconsin Sikh gurdwara in a shooting then-Attorney General Eric Holder called “an act of terrorism,” a Neo-Nazi killed three people outside Jewish buildings in Kansas in 2014, and several Muslim houses of worship have been fired upon during the recent uptick in Islamophobia — this, among many other incidents.
Some states, such as South Carolina, already ban guns in churches, although such laws can’t in and of themselves stop shooters who purchase guns illegally or, like Roof, procure them while submitting to a background check system riddled with major flaws.
Some Texas faith leaders are embracing open carry laws, however. Dennis R. Wiles, pastor of the megachurch First Baptist Church of Arlington, declared before the law took effect that his congregation’s leaders “decided tentatively to not post the restrictive codes that prohibit open carry,” although he noted they would “monitor this situation closely and respond accordingly.”
But for Fierro, her concern ultimately revolves around the safety of those who wish to visit sanctuaries in peace.
“We want people to come into our churches and feel secure — but that would mean without guns inside the church,” she said.