Parishioners carried Bibles in embroidered cases, babies with ribbons in their hair, and flutes, violins and sheet music into Immanuel Bible Church for Palm Sunday services.
And a few carried guns, tucked into waistbands, hidden under suit jackets.
At least a dozen members of this Springfield congregation routinely bring concealed weapons to services, said the Rev. Steve Holley, the church’s pastor of ministries. Since the Virginia attorney general published an advisory opinion last week on weapons in houses of worship, Holley wonders whether more of his flock will have “a Bible in one holster and a handgun in the other as they come to church.”
Virginia law bars guns in religious meetings unless the person has a “good and sufficient reason” to carry a weapon. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) wrote that personal protection meets the legal standard as a reason to carry a firearm. He said, however, that a church can choose to ban guns on its property.
His opinion sparked strong responses. Some called it an affront to the tradition of the church as a sanctuary from violence. Others said: “Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition!”
Although gun issues are particularly raw in Virginia — in part because of the way the commonwealth’s population and culture are changing — guns and churches have been together a long time there.
In the earliest days, firearms and religion were enormously important to Virginians, with residents expected to own guns and practice shooting regularly and to worship publicly. Requiring people to attend church and serve in militias bound the community together.
A 1632 law in Virginia required men to bring their guns to church on Sundays. The law was passed at a time of great fragility for the colony, said S. Max Edelson, an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, when the English colonists had been under fierce assault by Indian tribes.
“In case of an attack on Sunday, when everyone is assembled at church, they don’t have to disperse to get their arms,” Edelson said.
Now, in many parts of Virginia, people carry guns openly at places such as grocery stores, parks and some polling places. Some conceal the weapons if they have a permit to do so. The Rev. Jonathan Barton, head of the Virginia Council of Churches, told of a groom who wanted to keep his gun in its holster during his wedding ceremony.
But as more people move into the state and the culture shifts from rural to urban — especially in Northern Virginia — the way people see guns has been changing, said John Casteen IV, an assistant professor at Sweet Briar College.
Debates over the balance between individual freedom and collective good play out every year in the General Assembly and elsewhere. Some people assume public safety is greater if more people are armed, but others assume the opposite.
Barton was saddened by Cuccinelli’s opinion. “A house of worship is for celebration of life, and to carry a concealed weapon into that space is to violate that sacred space.”
Philip Van Cleave, of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said people have been carrying concealed weapons to church for years because of the threat of terrorism and church shootings across the country.
“Al-Qaeda has been our reason, as well as many of the recent church shootings around the country,” he said. “Think of it this way: If saving your own life isn’t a ‘good and sufficient reason’ to carry a gun, then what else could possibly qualify?”
At Immanuel Bible, where a breeze sent pear-tree flower petals floating down on families greeting one another before services, parishioners echoed that debate.
“Guns in a church? Why?” said Samy Youssef, a member from Alexandria. “God is our protector. He is our savior.”
But Charles Whitener, who lives near Mount Vernon and has been meaning to get a concealed-weapon permit, said: “After some of the horrible things that have happened in other churches, I think the attorney general did the right thing.”
Church officials declined to identify members who they knew had guns with them; when approached, one member who had a weapon declined to comment.
Holley said that many in the congregation, which has a large number of military families, law enforcement officers and hunters, probably would agree with the attorney general’s opinion.
“The real sad thing for all of us in this is it’s an indication of where our culture is — that public meeting areas, churches, schools, town halls, malls are threats for terrorism,” Holley said. Two years ago, he said, a preacher in Illinois was gunned down in the pulpit.
The Rev. Tom Joyce, a fellow Immanuel pastor, said there was a case in Colorado in which a gunman began spraying bullets in a church but was shot and killed by someone in attendance.
“We rely 100 percent, before any weapon, in the power of the Holy Spirit to protect us,” he said. “It’s also good to have some people here on campus” who are trained and armed.
The people they know are carrying guns are military or law enforcement professionals, Holley said. Of course, with concealed weapons, it’s hard to know who’s armed. “We don’t frisk them, we don’t ask them if they’re packing heat or not.”
He hopes people will keep their guns hidden while at Immanuel. And he hopes that those who do carry will be people who have a license and not those who got their guns illegally.
On Sunday, the choir sang about the crucifixion, and people bowed their heads over well-worn Bibles to pray. A drama with a scene of a military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery was acted out. Joyce, who spent 25 years in the Navy, preached about Christ’s love.
Afterward, talking with Holley at the front of the sanctuary, he spun around suddenly, lifting his blazer to show the back of his waistband. Joyce laughed: No gun.