Area church wins round in gun suit

An Edina church's challenge to Minnesota's controversial handgun law got new life Tuesday when a state Court of Appeals panel reversed a lower court's ruling that denied the church the right to ban firearms in its parking lots.

Tuesday's ruling was hailed by leaders at Edina Community Lutheran Church and the dozens of others who have joined in the lawsuit since it was filed in May. Observers following the new law and the case called it an important turn in the battle over the issue of carrying handguns in public.

Hennepin County District Judge Marilyn B. Rosenbaum had earlier ruled the church lacked standing to challenge the portion of the law that dealt with parking lots. But the appeals court ruling said the new statute could affect property rights and freedom of religion. Tuesday's ruling sends the issue back to the district court.

"It's important so that we are able to practice our religious faith in a manner we see fit," said the Rev. Erik Strand, the church's pastor.

Last April, state lawmakers passed the Minnesota Citizens Personal Protection Act, which came to be known more popularly as the "conceal and carry" law. The new law made it easier for Minnesotans to get a handgun permit and carry a gun in public. Private building owners immediately began posting signs at public entrances banning handguns. But another provision of the law prevented private establishments from banning firearms in parking lots.

Edina Community Lutheran Church filed suit a week before the law went into effect on May 28, arguing that it often uses its parking lot and leased buildings for worship services and that the church should be allowed to prohibit guns on its property.

Other congregations from different denominations across the region joined the Edina church's lawsuit. Also joining the lawsuit was Bishop James Jelinek of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota.

In June, Rosenbaum ruled for a portion of the churches' request, saying they did not need to adhere to the law's detailed provisions about its "guns banned" signs and did not need to personally notify visitors. But she added that the church didn't have a legal right to challenge the law when it came to the parking lot. The appeals court said it did.

Leslie Sandberg, spokeswoman for Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch, said the office will review the appeals court ruling and make a decision later on how to proceed.

In arguing before the appeals court, however, Deputy Attorney General Hilary Caligiuri defended the statute by noting there are no mechanisms to enforce the law on churches if they go ahead and ban weapons in their parking lots.

The Edina church's lawyers will go back to ask that Rosenbaum expand her temporary injunction to include the church's parking lot and buildings it rents out.

The Edina church has about 600 congregation members, Strand said. It did not want to post the "guns banned'' signs prescribed by the law, nor have to give oral notice to those who enter its buildings. Instead, it posted a sign outside the church that reads: "Blessed are the peacemakers. No firearms are allowed in this place of sanctuary." And despite the earlier ruling on the parking lot, the church did post a sign banning guns there, the pastor added.

It is a matter of religious rights and property rights, said the church's attorney, David Lillehaug, a former U.S. attorney for Minnesota and a member of the congregation.

Hamline University law professor Joseph Daly called Tuesday's ruling an important turn in the legal battle over the issue. While much has been made about whether the gun law as written infringes on the church's religious rights, he noted that the appeals judges in their ruling made a point to include concerns over whether it infringes on a landowner's property rights. That could open the case up to include places such as shopping mall parking lots and those of other public places.

But, he added, the ruling Tuesday is not about whether the law is unconstitutional, but whether more consideration is needed on the application of the law in specific situations.

One of the law's backers, state Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, said the issue is a fading one in the minds of many Minnesotans. Permit holders have been legally carrying guns into churches, shopping malls and the Metrodome for years, he said.

But the ruling Tuesday means state leaders will have to watch to see how the court rulings play out, and decide if there need to be any changes made to the law.

Also pending in Ramsey County District Court is a lawsuit by more than 20 churches trying to get the law ruled unconstitutional. Lillehaug also represents the churches in that case. The suit maintains that the law violates the constitutional protections of religious freedom, freedom of speech and association, as well as property rights.