ST. FRANCIS — Wisconsin’s Catholic bishops advised people to seriously consider not carrying weapons into church buildings as a sign of reverence for those sacred spaces. In a statement issued Oct. 31, the bishops offered their pastoral guidance on Wisconsin’s concealed carry law (2011 Wisconsin Act 35) which took effect Nov. 1.

gunWhile the bishops did not mandate that parishes prohibit concealed weapons, they stressed that “acts of violence, destruction and murder are antithetical to the message and person of Jesus Christ and have no rightful place in our society, especially sacred places.”

In the statement, the bishops acknowledge the church’s respect for individual freedoms but stress its commitment to non-violence.

“The Catholic Church has a long tradition of sanctuary, allowing people fleeing violence to take refuge in church buildings as a place of safety and protection,” the statement says. “Whatever an individual parish decides to do regarding its policy on concealed weapons, we ask that all people seriously consider not carrying weapons in church buildings as a sign of reverence for these sacred spaces.”

The statement was signed by Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki; Bishop of Madison Robert C. Morlino; Bishop of Superior Peter F. Christensen; Bishop of Green Bay David L. Ricken; and Bishop of La Crosse William P. Callahan.

The statement asks individuals who are going to carry concealed weapons to do so while having respect for others, their homes, places of business and other public spaces.

“This freedom includes both religious liberty and the right to self-defense,” it reads. “True freedom, however, is not license to do whatever we choose.”

With the implementation of the new state law allowing people to carry concealed weapons, it will be up to individual parishes to decide whether to erect signs stating that no weapons are allowed on their property. Schools are exempted from the legislation.

A press release by the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the public policy arm for the state’s bishops, added a recommendation from Catholic Mutual Group, the administrator of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee participants insurance program, suggesting that parishes and church facilities bar weapons from their premises, noting it will not have an impact upon liability protection or cost of coverage in the property and liability program.

“I would not be surprised if some churches exercise their option under the law to post signs saying weapons are not allowed,” John Huebscher, executive director of the WCC, said. “We have to recognize many other states have such a law; some of the states have exempted churches, so the churches are presumed to be places where you can’t bring weapons.”

Some states like Wisconsin allow for places to ban weapons as long as they put up signs. Others, however, argue that could violate the separation of church and state.

“Is that an infringement on religious liberty? I think you can argue some will say that,” Huebscher said. “In Minnesota, the churches argued the requirement to have to put the sign up did violate their religious liberties under the Minnesota constitution and I believe the courts there agreed with them.”

In 2008, Edina Community Lutheran Church v. State of Minnesota, the appellate court in Minnesota ruled in favor of churches arguing the requirement of placing signs at entrances and informing every individual that weapons are not permitted, violated the states’ constitutional rights.

According to a statement issued Oct. 31 by Julie Wolf, communications director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the archdiocese is still “in the process of reviewing the documents provided by its insurance company and is consulting with advisors before making a determination of archdiocesan policy for its central office building and other archdiocesan properties.”

The push for exempting religious buildings from the legislation was a long, and eventually, unsuccessful battle. On May 12, Barbara Sella, associate director of the WCC, went before the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Corrections to request the exemption.

“Like schools, churches and buildings used for religious purposes, hospitals, day care centers, Catholic charities agencies, etc., are enclosed spaces where children and adults gather in close quarters and where the intentional or accidental discharge of a firearm can do great damage,” she testified to the committee. “A number of other states that permit concealed weapons do exempt buildings used for religious purposes. Any law adopted in Wisconsin should do the same.”

On May 24 a letter was sent to members of the legislature, signed by the executive directors of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, Wisconsin Jewish Conference, Wisconsin Catholic Conference and the Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin, stating a necessity to exempt places of worship.

The Wisconsin
Department of Justice
put together a 56-page
“Frequently Asked Questions”
memo about the concealed
carry law. The WCC
summarized a number of
the provisions in the new law
and addresses questions
parishes and Catholic
agencies may have.
Both of those fact sheets
can be found on its website

“Some suggest we can keep churches weapons-free by posting signs. That is not adequate,” the letter read. “Their very presence defaces the environment of peace and serenity we try to cultivate when we gather faith communities.”

Huebscher said the WCC heard many opinions about the issue.

“Some felt the law was a good idea, others thought it was terrible and we got a couple of calls from people saying they were unhappy that it passed,” Huebscher said. “My sense from other states is this doesn’t necessarily become a big issue. That doesn’t mean something wouldn’t happen here where it would get more attention.”

Robert Shelledy, coordinator of social justice ministry for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said clashes between government and religion over legislation of this sort are inevitable.

“We exist in our society and we’re going to have interaction with various levels of government,” Shelledy said. “Here in the United States we’re very blessed to live in a democracy and we have certain rights under the First Amendment.”

Shelledy said the response of the Catholic Church is going to be different from the response of the private sector.

“All the schools and Catholic parishes are looking at the law and trying to figure out how best to respond,” Shelledy said.

He also noted that Catholics are called to live their faith in a way that reflects who they are as Catholics.

“It’s obligatory on us as Catholics to live out our faith regardless of what the law says and in this particular case, I think that this law isn’t forcing anyone to do anything,” Shelledy said.