First Liberty Argues in Federal Appeals Court, Challenging New York’s Ban on Firearms in Churches

March 24, 2023
HIs Taberrnacle | First Liberty Institute

by Jorge Gomez • 4 min read

First Liberty and law firm Clement & Murphy argued in federal appeals court this week that His Tabernacle Family Church has a right to defend people in the pews.

His Tabernacle, which has campuses in Horseheads and Ithaca, is challenging a New York law that prohibits firearms at places of worship but not in most secular establishments. Under this law, Home Depot or the local diner can decide whether to allow patrons to protect themselves, but churches cannot.

Our legal team is making the case at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that New York’s total ban on carrying in houses of worship is discriminatory and in violation of the First and Second Amendments.

The state’s attorney insisted that “New York’s law does not burden the plaintiff’s religious practice.” The judges, however, appeared skeptical. One judge asked: “Don’t we have to accept the pleading that a pastor believes he has a personal religious obligation to protect his flock? If that is so, why can the state prevent him from designating which members of his congregation can provide security?”

Erin Murphy, a partner at Clement & Murphy, argued that the First and Second Amendments protect houses of worship from such government overreach. She explained to the court that the state law puts the church to an impossible choice: “If you want to carry firearms for self-defense, you cannot enter into His Tabernacle to engage in religious worship.” She emphasized: “When you have a law that specifically regulates how people may engage in worship, then that is a burden on free exercise.”

Following the argument, Murphy said in a press statement; “New York’s prohibition on churches making their own decisions about firearms is inconsistent with the nation’s historical tradition of protecting an individual’s right to carry a firearm for self-defense outside the home.”

You can listen to the full argument below:

His Tabernacle Family Church
(Spencer v. Nigrelli)
Federal Appeals Court Argument

In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion chiding New York for singling out religious groups for especially harsh occupancy restrictions. Then, in June of last year, the Court’s ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen invalidated the state’s tight limits on the freedom to carry a firearm outside the home.

But only days after Bruen, New York enacted expansive new laws restricting the carrying of firearms outside the home, including a total ban in houses of worship. State law even imposes criminal liability on any person who carries a firearm into a place of worship regardless whether that person possesses a license to carry under New York law, and regardless whether the religious community would prefer to authorize congregants to carry firearms.

We argue that the state’s repeated losses before the Supreme Court “should have taught New York to proceed with extreme caution where First or Second Amendment rights are at stake.” However, the state persisted in violating two fundamental constitutional freedoms. We pointed out in our complaint:

“New York now puts houses of worship and religious adherents to an impossible choice: forfeit your First Amendment right to religious worship or forfeit your Second Amendment right to bear arms for self-defense…New York’s attempt to force houses of worship and their parishioners to choose between their First Amendment rights and their Second—an outlier policy shared by no other state in the Nation—stands as an act of defiance to the Supreme Court’s recent and emphatic holdings protecting both.”

Late last year, our clients received positive news. A New York federal district court issued a preliminary injunction putting the law on hold. Now, the appeals court will decide whether that order will remain in place.

The outcome will affect many houses of worship and their right to decide how best to protect their congregations. Please continue praying as we wait for the Second Circuit’s decision. Pray for each of the judges, that they’ll have an open mind as they write the opinion. No matter their philosophy on the law and the Constitution, we’re praying they all agree that no American should be forced to sacrifice one constitutionally protected freedom to enjoy another.


Attorney General Bailey Files Amicus Briefs Against Unconstitutional New York Law

Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey and 18 other state attorneys general filed amicus briefs in federal court supporting Americans’ right to keep and bear arms and the right of places of worship to determine their own policies related to firearms. Both cases concern New York’s unconstitutional law making it a felony to possess a firearm in what the state labels “sensitive places,” which it defines to include “any place of worship or religious observation.”

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