A federal judge has once more found the state’s ban on carrying a gun in church, even by those with permits, violates New Yorkers’ rights.
Judge John Sinatra of the Western District of New York, a Trump appointee, again found the state’s ban unconstitutional on Thursday. The judge sided with the pastor of a church in his challenge against the state’s Concealed Carry Improvement Act (CCIA) in Spencer v. Nigrelli. He ruled the ban violated worshipers’ gun rights and infringed on the free exercise of their religious beliefs.
“Ample Supreme Court precedent addressing the individual’s freedoms under the First and Second Amendments to the Constitution dictate that New York’s new place of worship exclusion is unconstitutional,” Sinatra wrote in his preliminary injunction of the law. “[T]he State fails the Second Amendment test set forth in Bruen. And it fares no better with respect to Plaintiffs’ claims under the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment.”
The ruling comes only a few months after Sinatra first ruled against the provision in Hardaway v. Nigrelli. It is the third ruling to find the provision unconstitutional after a different judge ruled against it in Antonyuk v. Nigrelli. The string of losses in the lower courts is a bad sign for the law and a good sign for gun-rights advocates looking to eliminate it.
However, the Second Circuit has shown a willingness to stay lower court rulings against the CCIA, and advocates will likely have to convince appellate judges as well. That could prove harder given the Second Circuit’s track record of upholding many gun restrictions, at least in the days before the Supreme Court’s game-changing ruling in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen.
The cases against New York’s CCIA, which was passed as an explicit rebuke of the Court’s ruling in Bruen, could ultimately end up back in front of the Court before too long. One motion from Antonyuk has already made its way there.
New York Attorney General Letitia James (D.) did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling. Ryan Gardner, Counsel at First Liberty Institute, which represented His Tabernacle Family Church Pastor Michael Spencer in the case, celebrated the verdict.
“Singling out houses of worship for total disarmament demonstrates hostility toward religion, leaves them defenseless to rebuff violent attacks, sticks the state’s nose into how religious services are conducted, and defies at least two recent Supreme Court rulings against New York,” he said in a statement. “Thanks to the court’s action, New York must stop disarming its religious citizens and may no longer leave houses of worship vulnerable to violence.”
Sinatra said the church gun ban singled out religious institutions in ways it didn’t single out other private property owners.
“There is no evident justification for the view that secular business owners are more qualified than religious leaders to determine whether to allow armed self-defense on their property,” he wrote.
He also found that Pastor Spencer derived his view that he and his parishioners had a personal duty to protect fellow church members by carrying firearms from genuine religious beliefs. He ruled that even if the state disputed the merits of that belief, it doesn’t get to infringe on it by forcing him to ban permitted gun carry.
“But it does not ultimately matter whether he is correct that hired security—armed or not—would effectively protect the congregation,” Sinatra said. “Pastor Spencer and Church members have a religious belief that they, themselves, must protect the flock. Indeed, religious beliefs ‘need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.'”
In his Second Amendment analysis of New York’s church ban, Sinatra found
“[N]o proper analogy to sensitive places exists in this case,” he wrote. “And the Nation’s history does not countenance such an incursion into the right to keep and bear arms across all houses of worship across the state. The right to self-defense is no less important and no less recognized at these places. The Constitution requires that individuals be permitted to use handguns for the core lawful purpose of self defense. And it protects that right outside the home and in public.”
Sinatra wrote a stay pending appeal is not necessary in the case. However, he agreed to grant one with the exception that His Tabernacle Family Church is allowed to authorize permitting worshipers to carry because of an agreement between the plaintiffs and defendants.