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Churches seek to overturn concealed-carry law
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Churches are challenging the constitutionality of Minnesota's concealed carry handgun law. Nearly two dozen churches and religious organizations filed suit Tuesday in Ramsey County court. (MPR file photo)
More than two dozen religious organizations have asked a Ramsey County judge to overturn the state's new handgun-permitting law. The law requires local law enforcement officials to grant permits to carry weapons in public to anyone who meets certain qualifying criteria. The religious groups argue the law is unconstitutional and was passed by the Legislature inappropriately. Supporters of the new permitting process say the legal challenge is without merit.

St. Paul, Minn. — Earlier this year, opponents of the new handgun law won a partial victory. In June, a Hennepin County judge granted a restraininig order that makes it easier for religious institutions to notify permit-holders that weapons are prohibited in their churches, synagogues, or other houses of worship.

Now, certain religious groups want the rest of the law struck down. David Lillehaug, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in both the Hennepin and Ramsey County cases, says that when lawmakers approved the "conceal-carry" bill, they amended it onto an unrelated natural resources measure.

"This bill started as a duck. It walked like a duck, and it quacked like a duck. Then the House took it and engrafted a whole bunch of body parts. And by the time it was done, it was a platypus," he said.

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Image Attorney David Lillehaug

The House passed the bill 88-to-46. It was returned to the Senate where, because of the House's parliamentary maneuvers, there was no opportunity to amend the bill. The Senate approved the legislation 36-to-31. Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the measure hours later.

Supporters of the new law say there's nothing unusual about the process used to pass the bill. Joe Olson, a law professor at Hamline University and the president of Concealed-Carry Reform Now!, a group that has pushed for the permitting changes, says the prohibition on legislation that embraces disparate subjects is meant to prevent lawmakers from sneaking controversial provisions into unrelated bills.

But Olson says the handgun language received a full and vigorous debate in both houses of the Legislature.

"It had in the Senate side the longest floor debate, I'm told, that's ever been held in the Minnesota Senate. So no legislator was fooled; no legislator didn't understand what they were voting on, and no one is deceived in any way by this," according to Olson.

Minnesota courts have repeatedly warned lawmakers not to join unrelated provisions into one bill, but the courts have yet to strike down an entire piece of legislation on those grounds. The current lawsuit also alleges that the handgun law unlawfully restricts the rights of religious groups to keep weapons off of their property.

Susan Oeffling, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, a religous order that's party to the lawsuit, says the law interferes with constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.

This is not a winner. You know, it's a great publicity machine, and that's all it is.
- Joe Olson, concealed-carry supporter

"It impeded the way in which we welcome people to this place, this place which is our home and a place of ministry. It undermines our ability to create a safe place of sanctuary for children, women, and men," she says.

The law, as written, requires property owners who want to prohibit guns to post signs and to give verbal notice to permit-holders. The Hennepin County order lifts that burden for religious groups, allowing them to notify their guests in a manner of their own choosing. But the order doesn't allow them to ban firearms in their parking lots or on property they lease to other tenants.

The plaintiffs are appealing to have those matters included in the restrainnig order as well. But Olson says he thinks the churches have already gotten as much leeway as they can get from the courts. He says for religious institutions to reach further would amount to them imposing their beliefs on others.

"They're claiming that they can have a person arrested without giving them the notice that the statute requires because their religious belief allows them to give whatever notice they want to," he said.

Olson notes that the law contains a clause preserving the bulk of the language even if certain provisions are struck down. The chief authors of the bill did not return phone calls. A spokesman for House Republicans says the caucus won't comment on pending legal challenges.

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