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Va AG: Armed worship OK unless clergy bans it

Bob Lewis

People may carry guns into worship services for personal protection, but churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship _ not the state _ have the right to keep weapons out, according to a legal opinion by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

The opinion, issued Friday in response to an inquiry from Del. Mark Cole, focused on a state law that Cole called ambiguous.

The law makes taking a gun, knife or other deadly weapon into a worship service "without good and sufficient reason" a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $250.

Cuccinelli wrote that personal protection constitutes such a reason.

"The current state code is very poorly written, to the point of whether it's even enforceable," Cole, R-Spottsylvania, said Monday. "Why would you even write code like that?"

Cole in 2010 unsuccessfully sponsored legislation to clarify the law.

Cole said he sought the opinion the one-paragraph provision in the state's criminal statutes after receiving inquiries from some churches in his district resulting from recent deadly shootings in churches.

Gunfire last month killed the pastor of an Illinois church and wounded two people in the congregation.

Cuccinelli wrote that the self-defense is at the heart of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right to keep and bear arms.

The statute Cole questioned is in the penal, or criminal code, section of state law, and because of it must be "strictly construed against the Commonwealth and in favor of a citizen's liberty," Cuccinelli wrote.

Because of that, he said, "I conclude that lawfully carrying a firearm for self-defense and personal protection constitutes `a good and sufficient reason'" under the law.

But he added that an individual's right to go armed must coexist with the private property rights. The Second Amendment was intended only to restrain the government, not private parties, so "churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious entities can, like any other owner of property, restrict or ban the carrying of weapons onto their private property."

Brian Malte, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the opinion by the pro-gun Republican attorney general nudges Virginia closer toward making firearms more prevalent throughout society.

"Places of worship don't need loaded guns brought into them," Malte said. "The way Attorney General Cuccinelli states it, it looks like he's giving an opening to guns in churches, and we oppose that."

The Associated Press