Atlanta — Guns and other weapons are officially unwelcome at Catholic churches, schools and other buildings owned, leased or operated by the Atlanta archdiocese and the diocese of Savannah in Georgia.
Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory and Savannah Bishop Gregory Hartmayer issued a decree prohibiting guns and knives with blades longer than 5 inches from parishes, churches, schools, administrative offices and other buildings owned or used by the Catholic community effective July 1.
In a statement, the bishops said Catholic places of worship are sanctuaries where "ways of peace and reconciliation" should be the rule.
"This decree is rooted in the belief that our churches and other places of worship are intended to be sanctuaries -- holy sites where people come to pray and to worship God. In this nation of ours, they have seldom been the locations where violence has disrupted the otherwise peaceful atmosphere. Should it be necessary, we will seek the assistance of trained law enforcement personnel for protection, but among ourselves we will first seek ways of peace and reconciliation."
The new policy is in response to Georgia's Safe Carry Protection Act of 2014 that went into effect July 1. The act still prohibits weapons in places of worship, but allows religious leaders to "opt out" of the prohibition and allow these weapons in church, an option the Catholic church in Georgia has declined to do.
Any parishioner or visitor unlawfully carrying a weapon in violation of the Catholic dioceses' decree may be charged with trespassing. They will be asked to leave the facility and return only once they have removed the weapon.
The policy also will apply to activities sponsored by the Catholic church in Georgia, such as conferences, parish and school trips.
Law enforcement workers and authorized security personnel, including campus police officers, are exempt from the ban, according to the decree.
This decree continues the exclusion of guns and weapons in the facilities and churches of the Atlanta archdiocese and the Savannah diocese.
In addition to the requirements of this decree, Georgia law already prohibits a number of other weapons from being brought into schools.
There are several exemptions to the Catholic dioceses' policy. Clergy are permitted to own and keep a weapon securely in a rectory. Ceremonial swords used by the Knights of Columbus, Knights of Peter Claver, and similar organizations are allowed. Students who use rifles for training, such as at the Benedictine Military School in Savannah, can continue to use them.
Also, a person who has a license to carry a weapon may still drop off and pick up a person at a church facility or be in a car in the parking area as long as the weapon is secured.
[Andrew Nelson is a staff writer at The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Atlanta archdiocese.]