Invoking a state law, LDS Church leaders are putting gun owners on notice that the weapons are unwelcome in ward houses, temples and other church facilities in Utah.
The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in a written statement Friday that it had mailed a letter drafted Jan. 16 to local-level leaders informing them of plans to follow "Utah law and give public notice that firearms are prohibited in the church's houses of worship, including temples, meetinghouses, the Assembly Hall, the Salt Lake Tabernacle and the Conference Center."
Utah's 50,000 concealed weapons permit holders are allowed to carry their guns "without restriction" except in previously designated places like airports, jails and courthouses, which have other kinds of security.
The law also allows churches to adopt a no-guns policy but requires those organizations to make such policies public.
Under the notification options put in law by legislators last year, churches may publish their policies in a newsletter, bulletin, worship program or newspaper of general circulation. Those that opt to do so must also register with the state Bureau of Criminal Identification, which posts the names of registered organizations on its Web site.
Churches may also publicize a no-gun policy through personal communication to the permit holder, the posting of signs on a building or an announcement from the pulpit.
"The (LDS) Church will register its position with the State Bureau of Criminal Investigation and provide notice in the newspaper," the Friday statement reads. Currently, only three churches St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City, Shepherd of the Mountain Lutheran Church in Park City and the Summum Church of Salt Lake City have registered with the state.
The decision by LDS leadership to register puts the church in compliance with state law while at the same time setting the faith apart from other denominations in the Salt Lake Valley that oppose the registration requirement. In December, leaders from about two dozen religious organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church, said they believe that under the protections of the U.S. Constitution, Utah has no jurisdiction to dictate how churches must handle such policy.
The LDS Church officials did not take a stand with other faiths in December, saying at the time they had not determined their position, said Toni Marie Sutliff, a member of the Episcopal Church's statewide lay leadership.
Sen. Mike Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, who carried the registration bill last year, said he was not surprised by the LDS statement Friday and thought the decision to register might pressure other churches into compliance.
"Now that the (church) with the greatest number of members in the state is now doing it the way the state law stipulates, it will be hard for some of the smaller ones to say, well, we're going to do it our own way," said Waddoups. "It will make them appear even more out of touch with the people of the state."
Waddoups was asked by Sutliff to revise state law to make churches protected areas where guns are unwelcome. The senator declined.
Waddoups has said that although he agrees that a church is no place for a gun, he also believes people have the Second Amendment right to protect themselves. Churches would therefore have to provide the public with security protections if legally defined as protected spaces like courts or airports.
Sen. Karen Hale, D-Salt Lake, told the Deseret Morning News earlier this week she is working on a bill to do so that would likely be introduced later this legislative session.
Sutliff said Friday she is pleased with the LDS Church statement. She said she believes LDS leadership decided to go public with a statement in part because the church had a hand in drafting the 2003 registration legislation and could not in good conscience then oppose it. LDS leaders usually refrain from commenting on any matters of legislation unless they consider the issue one of morality.
"I don't think it hurts us in terms of what we are trying to do," said Sutliff. "It backs up our point that guns don't belong in churches. I don't see this as a bad thing."
Nor is it a new stance for LDS leadership, which issued its first statement to that effect in 1996, in the wake of a different gun debate on Capitol Hill.
"Churches are dedicated for the worship of God and as havens from the cares and concerns of the world," the 1996 statement read. "The carrying of lethal weapons, concealed or otherwise, within their walls is inappropriate, except as required by officers of the law."
comment on this story
Friday's statement included some nearly identical language but stressed that it relates only to the issue of weapons and houses of worship and not other frequently debated gun issues such as guns in schools or other public places.
Legislative leadership also expressed positive reactions to the church statement. Senate President Al Mansell, R-Sandy, who in December expressed disappointment that other churches would opt to ignore state law, said he was pleased that the LDS Church had opted for compliance.
"I feel like they have made the right decision. Anytime you don't like a law, the obligation isn't to disobey it but to get it changed," said Mansell.