Upson guns-in-church case lands in federal court

A minister’s fight to bring a gun to his Upson County church is now a federal case in Macon.

State and Upson County officials had the case moved to the U.S. District Court in Macon on Friday. The case garnered national news coverage when it was first filed a month ago in Upson County Superior Court by the Rev. Jonathan Wilkins of the Baptist Tabernacle of Thomaston, which is partnering with Inc. on the lawsuit. Wilkins said he has a constitutional right to be armed in church, which is now prohibited under state law.

The case was filed shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court clarified an individual’s right to bear arms. Wilkins’ attorney, John R. Monroe of Roswell, said the case depends more on Wilkins’ First Amendment right to freely worship than his Second Amendment right to bear arms.

“It’s difficult to imagine how a law that permits a certain behavior throughout the state but prohibits it in church would stand constitutional muster,” Monroe said.

The lawsuit argues that Wilkins often works alone in the Tabernacle building and would “like to carry a handgun while in the Tabernacle’s place of worship for the protection of his flock, his family, and himself, but he is in fear of arrest and prosecution under (state law) for doing so.”

The case is trying to overturn a portion of a state law that bans people from “carrying a weapon or long gun” in a place of worship. The law also covers government buildings, mental hospitals and bars, but those other locations are not being challenged under this lawsuit.

Monroe said he doesn’t expect the case will need a jury because there likely won’t be any factual disputes. A judge may settle the case in the first half of next year.

The Georgia Attorney General’s office and Upson County have not yet filed a response in the case., which is one of the plaintiffs in the case, said it has other members who carry licenses to possess weapons and regularly attend religious services who want to carry the handguns in church “for the protection of their families and themselves.” The organization said those people are afraid of arrest and prosecution under state law.