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Religion

NC churches wrestle with security, guns and worship
 
Published Friday, December 28, 2018
by Colleen Brown, UNC Media Hub

As parishioners filed down the red-carpeted aisles and into the pews, 20 of their peers were already at work behind the scenes. On Sunday morning at Hayes Barton Baptist Church in downtown Raleigh, the church has made safety and security a top priority. After shootings have rocked faith communities across the country, the church has committed itself to preventing the worst scenario from becoming a reality within their own sanctuary.

“Safety should be integrated into all church functions,” said Vann Langston, a 30-year member, deacon and chairman of the church’s security council. “That should be one of their top priorities. I can’t think of a higher priority, really.”

Hayes Barton believes that it’s the responsibility of the church to protect its congregants. But as many churches have taken preventative actions, others wrestle with the idea of weapons becoming an accepted part of religious life.

In the South, a higher percentage of the population owns guns than anywhere else in the country, according to a 2017 Pew Research survey. Gun owners reported a major reason for having the weapon is for personal protection in their daily life in that same survey.

After the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting in 2015, the shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, last year and the anti-Semitic hate crime in Pittsburgh in October, the desire for protection has extended into religious life. While concealed carry permits have restrictions in public schools and government buildings under current North Carolina law, no such restrictions exist about weapons on the property of religious institutions.

As an issue at the intersection of the First and Second Amendments, the government gives churches the freedom to make decisions and set their own policies. When it comes to ensuring the safety and security of members, churches may allow or prohibit weapons upon entrance into the building.

Allowing guns in church has its risks and rewards. If an active shooter were to enter the building, a church member with a pistol could possibly prevent the damage the shooter is there to inflict.

But there’s also the possibility that leaving untrained members to protect the church could lead to more damage, and it presents a massive liability for the organization if that gun ever was fired.

In crisis situations, law enforcement might misidentify a church member with a gun as the active shooter. Police officers might wound or kill a person just trying to help instead of neutralizing the threat.

AJ Farthing can remember an armed officer being present at Summit Church for as long as he’s worked there. The associate campus pastor for the Chapel Hill campus coordinates security weekly, and as a part of that process, a Chapel Hill police officer is contracted to be on site every Sunday.

Summit falls back on the officer around East Chapel Hill High School, where church is held weekly, as the primary safety measure that takes the pressure off the shoulder of the church’s security team in case of a crisis situation.

“One of our main goals on the weekend is safety,” Farthing said. “People trust us and they come spend time with us, so we want to honor that the best we can.”

Having an armed officer on campus is just part of that commitment. At each of the nine campus churches for Summit, the policy remains the same. The church works with the local law enforcement to make sure an armed guard is present in the lobby of the church from 30 minutes before the service starts until 30 minutes after the preacher wraps up his sermon.

In his time coordinating security for Summit, Farthing has only really had one complaint about an armed officer in church. “They didn’t realize there was going to be an officer there, so it freaked them out,” he said. “Other than that, I’ve heard bits and pieces of people feeling thankful the officer is there. It’s nice having someone there who has access to emergency response teams.”

Other churches across the Triangle haven’t developed quite as extensive policies to address safety. At Forest Hills Baptist Church, located less than half a mile from the campus of N.C. State, security has not been as big a concern and there’s no formal security team.

Rather than contracting an officer or spending money on elaborate security systems, three men are primarily in charge of walking the grounds and keeping an eye on the church. Someone walks the grounds and keeps an eye on the church each Sunday.

“Thank the Lord, there’s been nothing to be concerned about,” said Graham Spencer, who is a part of that three-man team “Unfortunately, I hope it doesn’t take something to get us all up in arms, but you kind of think that way sometimes. What if, and what would we do?”

Michael Sizemore has never held a firearm before, let alone fired one. But that hasn’t stopped the third-year divinity student at Campbell University from forming an opinion about them.

“I personally wish guns were never invented,” Sizemore said. “That would be ideal to me. It’s a weapon for the purpose of killing, so it sucks that it’s a thing, but it’s the reality.”

Does evidence support weapons actually make churches safer? The North Carolina Council of Churches, an organization that represents 18 denominations and 6,200 congregations across the state, says that it doesn’t.

In a news release sent out by the organization last April, Executive Director Jennifer Copeland cited statistics that link firearms to other societal problems — worsening suicide rates, domestic violence and increasing the number of accidental child deaths annually. For that reason, she and the council oppose the presence of weapons at church, believing they provide little more than a perceived sense of security that poses more risk for unintended consequences than reward.

“Nearly 70 percent of the people who carry a gun claim they do so for safety, while the statistics clearly show guns make us less safe,” Copeland said in the release. “This makes guns a false idol.”

 

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