CAHOKIA – Illinois lawmakers who last month beat a court-imposed deadline to allow concealed weapons in public left out something a suburban Chicago legislator now wants to change: A ban on firearms in places of worship.
Democratic state Sen. Dan Kotowski, a former gun-control lobbyist from Park Ridge, is drawing fire from some ministers after introducing an amendment in mid-July to add churches, synagogues and mosques to the list of places forbidden for concealed carry.
Kotowski said he consulted with Chicago-area religious leaders before formally proposing the amendment in a state where a pastor inexplicably was gunned down during a Sunday service four years ago. But clergy leaders downstate say prohibiting pistols near pulpits could be an unrighteous affront to constitutional and property rights, and a National Rifle Association lobbyist says he plans to challenge it.
The fledging law, passed July 9 and months from taking effect, bars concealed weapons from Illinois schools, courthouses, government buildings, libraries and forms of public transit. The measure says churches and other private places may post a sign noting people can’t carry guns onto the property.
Kotowski says providing churches with a specific exemption was an oversight that some lawmakers were unaware of until the legislation was debated.
“There are certain places where guns should be off-limits. Churches, as sanctuaries, are among them,” Kotowski told The Associated Press this week, stressing that the ministers he consulted “believe that when you go into a house of worship you’re going in to pray, reflect and make the most of this period of silence.”
“For many, knowing someone can bring in a loaded, concealed handgun is very troubling,” he added.
Such a prohibition has the blessings of Charles Burton, pastor of the 125-member Unity Fellowship Church in Godfrey northeast of St. Louis. Burton, though, believes the debate about concealed weapons dodges an underlying issue: broken communities and “the politics of division.”
“People don’t feel safe because of the lack of community, and guns don’t fix that,” Burton said. While he understands gun ownership for home protection and hunting, “guns in public space where we’re supposed to have law enforcement to protect us is problematic.”
He doubts congregants need to pack heat.
“To help people and be a blessing to the community, there’s some risk involved. I get it,” he said. “But when we surrender to our fear, we dishonor our faith.”
Other religious leaders consider Kotowski’s legislation misguided, saying big churches, mosques and synagogues in Chicago and elsewhere can afford security while their smaller, less well-funded counterparts are defenseless.
“I’m fine with the church deciding [whether to allow concealed guns]. I’m not fine with the state dictating it,” said Cory Respondek, pastor of the 20-member Living Water Church in Cahokia, which he calls “a higher crime area” near St. Louis.
“If someone is intending harm or to attack our congregation, we want to be able to stop that threat. Arming ourselves and a few of our people is the easiest way to deter that,” said Respondek, whose Pennsylvania concealed-carry permit allows him to publicly tote a firearm in dozens of states, but not Illinois.
Pastors who object to Kotowski’s plan also point to examples of church violence in Illinois.
Four years ago, a stranger armed with a .45-caliber handgun and enough bullets to kill 30 people strolled into the First Baptist Church in Maryville during a Sunday morning service and shot at pastor Fred Winters as he stood at the pulpit – causing confetti to rain from the pastor’s Bible and leaving some of the 150 onlookers to wonder, at first, if it was a skit.
Gunman Terry Sedlacek, who had no apparent connection to the southwestern Illinois church or Winters, fired three more times, with one bullet going through the pastor’s heart as Winters, 45, tried to run, authorities said. After Sedlacek’s gun jammed, he pulled out a knife but was wrestled down by two congregants, police said.
Sedlacek has pleaded not guilty and remains confined to mental health treatment, his case still unresolved.
Messages left with the Maryville church’s security chief for this story weren’t returned.
Another of the violent church incidents was the impetus for the lawsuit that resulted in Illinois’ last-in-the-nation ban on concealed carry being scrapped by a federal appeals court.
Mary Shepard was 69 and working as a secretary at First Baptist Church in southern Illinois’ Anna in 2009 when she and a 76-year-old cleaning woman were severely beaten. Willis Bates ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted murder and is serving a 23-year sentence.
Shepard has said she could have thwarted the attack had she not been barred by state law from carrying a gun.
While the law gives Illinois State Police months to set up the process, Shepard is suing to hasten the law’s implementation. She does not have a listed phone number and was unreachable for this story, and a message left for her through her church wasn’t returned.
All the while, Mark Palmisano embraces the prospect of his fellow congregants carrying hidden firearms at Collinsville’s Centerpoint Church, where he serves as the security chief. The caveat: Logistically, he needs to know who the armed folks are.
“As a general church-going Christian,” he said, “I don’t believe your rights as an American stop when you walk through the door.”