LITTLE ROCK — A House committee endorsed legislation that would let individual churches decide their own policy on permitting handguns inside Thursday, moving the measure a step closing to becoming law in the state.
The House Judiciary Committee advanced Senate Bill 71 by Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest.
The guns in church bill, previously passed by the Senate, now goes to the House, where a similar measure passed two years ago when King was a member. It failed in the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2011 but encountered little resistance there last week and easily passed the Senate on a 28-4 vote Monday.
On Thursday, the House panel approved the measure on a voice vote. Only Rep. Darrin Williams, D-Little Rock, voted no, after complaining that the proposal does not require churches that allow concealed weapons inside to obtain liability insurance.
Arkansas is one of 10 states that allow concealed guns but prohibit them in churches.
King told the panel the intent of the bill is simple.
"Each church gets to decide their own policy on their security," King said. "If they don’t want to allow anybody to conceal carry they can continue the policy that they have today. If they only want to allow certain individuals to conceal carry they can do that. If they want to allow any body to conceal carry they can do that."
Speaking against the bill, Marie Mainard-O’Connell, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, said her church’s insurance company told her the church’s insurance could rise if the bill becomes law and that the church "required to post what our policy is regardless of whether we permitted handguns."
She said she was told the signs would have to be posted on the doors, outside the building and in the church bulletin, and that those in attendance would have to be informed of the policy at the beginning of every service.
King said he would look into Mainard-O’Connell’s concerns.
Gordon Garlington, who said he is pastor of a Presbyterian church in Central Arkansas the measure could threaten safety in church, not enhance it.
"My concern is it could potentially result in not fewer but more people being hurt if (guns) are allowed in churches," Garlington said, adding that innocent bystanders could be injured if a concealed carry holder gets into a shootout with a gunman in church.
Speaking for the bill, Nathan Petty, pastor of Beech Grove Baptist Church in Fordyce, said he has a concealed handgun permi9t and teaches the course but has to leave his weapon in his car when he enters the church.
He said a 75-year-old church secretary was confronted by a mentally ill man earlier this week and the police had to be called when the man became agitated.
"Most people think about church being something we do for one hour on Sunday mornings, but for many people, including staff, musicians, teachers, custodians and many other people, a church is a work place, a church building is a work place," Petty said.
"By nature a church has to be somewhat vulnerable," he said. "That is part of what we do. We have to place ourselves out there. We have to be willing to accept people from all different kinds of backgrounds. We open our doors to people in need, to people who have been cast out by their own families and people who are often desperate for help."
Nicholas Staley, who teaches concealed carry classes, said King’s bill "returns the rights to the church to exercise control over their own property."
Rep. Mark McElroy, D-Tillar, said he was for the bill because he wasn’t sure the state could be telling churches what they could or could not do.
"My take on this is not about the guns today. My concern is the Constitution separates church and state for a reason, and I trust you guys, but I don’t want you making a decision for me where I go to church," he said.