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New York Ban on Firearms at Churches Violates 1st and 2nd Amendments


In Spencer v. Nigrelli, (WD NY, Dec. 29, 2022), a New York federal district court issued a preliminary injunction barring enforcement against plaintiffs– a pastor and his church– of New York state’s ban on concealed-carry license holders possessing a firearm at any place of worship or religious observation. The court concluded that the ban violates the Free Exercise Clause, Establishment Clause and Second Amendment rights of plaintiffs, saying in part:

Pastor Spencer believes that he has “a moral and religious duty to take reasonable measures to protect the safety of those who enter the Church.”… He explained that the “Bible often refers to religious leaders as ‘shepherds’ and tasks them with caring for and protecting their ‘flocks.”‘… He therefore believes that “providing for the physical safety of the Church tin body of Christ—is [his] religious act and duty as a pastor.”…

Pastor Spencer testified that members of the Church’s security team of congregants protect the congregation pursuant to a calling from God. Hired outside security, Spencer believes, is not an adequate substitute because such individuals would be working for a paycheck—not acting pursuant to a spiritual calling…. Pastor Spencer and Church members have a religious belief that they, themselves, must protect the flock. Indeed, religious beliefs “need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.” …

In sum, on this record, Plaintiffs have demonstrated that the State permits countless other private actors hosting secular activities to do what a house of worship may not. The houses of worship exclusion is not a neutral law of general applicability….

The new law, in effect, forces them to disregard this spiritual calling and, notably, dictates that protection of the Church may only be provided by a different group of people—i.e., individuals fitting into a statutory exemption. The Supreme Court instructs that “a component” of a church’s “autonomy is the selection of the individuals who play certain key roles.”… [T]he place of worship exclusion encroaches on matters “closely linked” with the Church’s right to determine how best to conduct its own affairs.

However, the court issued a stay pending appeal allowing the church to designate individuals who have concealed carry licenses to carry firearms on church premises to keep the peace. This is consistent with stays issued by the Second Circuit in other cases now on appeal challenging the New York ban on firearms at places of worship. The Reload reports on the decision. Reason has more on the Second Amendment aspects of the case.


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