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Monday, June 30, 2014 - 8:59am

A Tale Of Two Churches: Navigating Georgia’s New Gun Law

Updated: 5 months ago.
Tom Rush (L), pastor of Berean Baptist Church, says the church will "opt in" to church carry. Bishop Robert Wright (R) says 109 Episcopal parishes in the state will not.

This week, some churches in Georgia will open their doors to licensed gun owners and their weapons for the first time. A new law goes into effect July 1 that allows places of worship to “opt-in” to church carry. And it’s been a tough decision for people on both sides of the issue.

Inside his office at Berean Baptist Church in Social Circle, Pastor Tom Rush has met with a church deacon about everything from the church’s community cookout, to how the new gun law will impact their small congregation. Rush says the church has about 90 members, and it averages about 70 on a Sunday morning.

Church leadership has already decided they want to “opt-in”, but Rush knows that might not sit well with everyone.

“Quite frankly, we may have some people in our church that are uncomfortable with the idea. I’m uncomfortable with it,” said Rush. “You know, I grew up in a day when we left the sanctuary doors open so people could come in at any time and pray. Unfortunately, we don’t live in those days anymore.”

“Just so you know, I typically carry a firearm and I pray every day I never have to use it,” says Daniel, a licensed gun owner, a husband and a father of two. The Marietta dad was also a regular church-goer, until recently.

“God put this in our path for a reason and for us to figure out where our priorities are. Our priority includes church, so that's not in question. What it also includes is you know, is having certain freedoms not curtailed and not decided for us."

Daniel asked GPB not to use his last name. He worries speaking out on such a controversial law could cost him his job. He and his family stopped going to their church about two months ago. That’s when Bishop Robert Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta announced that the 109 parishes he leads would not welcome firearms.

“I saw this as a wonderful opportunity to talk about what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the 21st Century,” says Wright. “Even though permission has been given to have guns everywhere, that stops for us at the sanctuary. This is a gun-free zone.”

Bishop Wright says even though he was active in lobbying against the gun bill this spring, this was not a political decision, but one based on faith. The Bishop calls this a “respectful disagreement” with state lawmakers and even other Christians.

“We know that there are people who this has been a tough conversation for them and some people are choosing to leave, though these have been very isolated incidents. I can tell you what I have heard. I’ve heard that more people are wanting to come to the Episcopal Church now, because of the stance.”

Daniel and his wife say their Sundays do feel a little empty right now, but they are confident they will find a new church that shares their beliefs.
“The fundamental concept is that self-defense is a human right and that human right should not be curtailed just because I happen to be at church, or just because I happen to be at school or anywhere else. I mean, the bad guys don’t care about that.”

Tom Rush is still meeting with that church deacon. He’s had a lot of meetings lately—with attorneys, the church’s insurance company—making sure everything is hammered out before Berean Baptist allows licensed gun owners to bring their guns to Sunday service.

“You’re probably not going to be able to stop, you know, the first injury or the first death, but if people are there and able to protect the others who are present, we might be able to stop it from turning into a carnage,” said Rush. “ And again, I’m uncomfortable with that. Everybody’s uncomfortable—nobody wants to have to use their Second Amendment rights. We love to have them; we don’t want to use them.”

In fact, even though Pastor Rush is a licensed gun owner, he says he’ll keep his piece out of the pulpit.