If ever there were a question about its stance toward guns in meetinghouses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has removed all doubt: Unlike visitors, firearms are not only not welcome, they are strictly forbidden.
In fact, the Utah-based faith now “prohibits” all “lethal weapons” from its properties, unless carried by current law enforcement officers. Previously, the church deemed it merely “inappropriate" to have firearms in its buildings.
On Monday, church spokesman Daniel Woodruff confirmed that stricter wording had been added to Handbook 2, an instruction manual for local lay leaders, and is posted online for members and nonmembers to read.
“Churches are dedicated for the worship of God and as havens from the cares and concerns of the world," the new firearms policy states. "With the exception of current law enforcement officers, the carrying of lethal weapons on church property, concealed or otherwise, is prohibited.”
The handbook update took effect the first week of August, Woodruff said.
The rules will be formally communicated to local leaders, who in turn will be responsible for sharing them with their members, he said, noting that “lethal weapons include a number of possible items including guns.”
While this policy applies to the 16.3 million-member worldwide church, Woodruff said, a letter referencing this section of the handbook was specifically sent to Latter-day Saint leaders in Texas. The church asked bishops there to read a statement in sacrament services Sunday as a response to Lone Star State legislation that takes effect Sept. 1.
Under the new Texas law, it is legal to carry concealed weapons in places of worship. However, churches can bar weapons on religious premises by giving “effective notice" verbally or thorough building signs.
“The decision has been made not to place written signs on our buildings,” an Aug. 22 letter to leaders in the church’s Southwest area states. Rather, “we are asking all bishops in Texas to read the following statement in the sacrament meetings of all units to give effective oral notice to members of the church and visitors that weapons are not permitted.”
The announcement "constitutes effective notice that it is not permissible to enter the premises of Latter-day Saint buildings with open or concealed weapons except as permitted by the church’s policy.”
If those not in attendance Sunday to hear the policy ever show up at church carrying a gun — open or concealed — “the priesthood leader should read the approved statement,” the letter says, “and kindly ask them to comply by removing the firearm from the building.”
Ty Andersen, a Latter-day Saint in Fort Worth, was among those who heard the announcement.
“I respect the church’s decision to not allow firearms in buildings,” he wrote in an email. "I’m a gun owner myself and grew up in a rural area where gun ownership was very common. But I feel strongly that private entities should have the right to place limitations on people carrying firearms on their property. I attend a ward [congregation] where police officers are present, and I feel reasonably safe at church.”
Andersen is “hopeful,” he said, “that the policy will help other church members and visitors feel welcome and safe as well.”
Utah gun rights advocate Janalee Tobias sees a problem with the policy.
“It’s concerning that they are making us a soft target,” said the founder of Women Against Gun Control. “Criminals are cowards and these shootings occur in places that don’t have guns. You always want your enemies to think you are protected."
Not everyone “has to pack a pistol to the pews," she added, “just those who wish to.”
Tobias, a Latter-day Saint who lives in South Jordan, wishes her church would follow the “wisdom taught in the Book of Mormon” — the faith’s foundational scripture — that encourages members to “fortify their cities."
She also argues the policy conflicts with the Second Amendment.
“The church doesn’t have a right to tell me if I have a right to protect my family,” she said, noting Mormon teachings that tout the U.S. Constitution as inspired by God. “But now we can’t have the Second Amendment in church. What do we do about that?”
Under Utah law, a person must have a permit to carry a concealed firearm, but the Beehive State is more permissive than some, allowing concealed weapons in public spaces like parks, school campuses and the Utah Capitol.
Churches in the Beehive State can prohibit guns — even legally permitted concealed carry firearms — but they must notify the public of their intent to restrict firearms. Utah’s predominant faith has done so through the state Department of Public Safety.
There have been gun incidents — even deadly ones — at Latter-day Saint meetinghouses through the years. In July, a 48-year-old man opened fire inside a church in the northern Nevada city of Fallon, killing one man and wounding another. A decade ago in Utah County, a pregnant woman was shot and killed by her estranged husband in the parking lot of a meetinghouse in Lehi.
In the wake of last year’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in which a Latter-day Saint teen was killed, church President Russell M. Nelson, barely a month into his tenure at the faith’s helm, criticized U.S. gun laws, suggesting they fall short of what the country needs.
“God allows us to have our agency, and men have passed laws that allow guns to go to people who shouldn’t have them,” Nelson told a congregation of millennials in Las Vegas in February 2018.
Geoff Openshaw, editor in chief of the blog This Week in Mormons, said the subtle change takes the policy from mere guidance to a firm rule.
“Calling something ‘inappropriate’ might have been enough for many to assume firearms were verboten at church” Openshaw wrote, “but the church obviously felt compelled to remove any ambiguity and firmly prohibit the weapons.”