Legally Speaking


By Karen L. MacNutt,
Contributing Editor

The increased attacks on houses of worship is distressing. Some attacks are motivated by an intent to destroy any religion disapproved of by the attackers. Others are carried out by cowards looking for easy targets and motivated by pure hate.
Many mass killings in the United States had been directed at helpless victims such as school children or people packed into places of public assembly. With increased security in schools and office buildings, houses of worship have become a tempting target. Although the focus of this article will be churches, what is said applies to other places of worship.
If you attend a church, or hold a position of influence at a church, you need to consider what would happen if there were a violent attack on the church.
By its nature, a church should be open to all, even sinners. Yet, elders, deacons, trustees, vestry, and/or clergy have an obligation to protect worshipers from harm.
Church Mutual Insurance Company, a top insurer of churches, brought attention to the problem when it sent emails to church leaders across the country warning them of the need to develop plans to protect their congregations from a violent attack.
At first blush the thought of a church planning to repel a violent attack seems counter intuitive; but, it is a prudent thing to do. Just as churches have fire extinguishers and fire evacuation plans, so, too, they need plans in case their assembly is attacked. In undertaking such a plan, a church has to consider both the laws of man and of God.
There is nothing in the Bible that prevents believers from defending themselves or others from an illegal, violent attack. The Old Testament is filled with stories of the Children of Israel being at war with someone. David, who killed Goliath with a slung stone, was said to be favored of God while Cain, who killed his brother Able with a rock, was not. The difference was not the weapon used, but the motive. David was defending his community. Cain was murdering his brother. The Old Testament commandment not to kill is better translated as not to murder. The Biblical punishment for murder was death.
The New Testament does not address lawful self-defense. Jesus told his followers to forgive those who gave them personal insult, to turn the other cheek. In the “turn the other cheek” example, the person giving offense was not wielding a club or other weapon. The assault was not life threatening. What Jesus was saying is, as a private person, do all you can to avoid violent confrontations. Accept insults without retaliation. Give up property, if you must, to avoid violence. Jewish law was quite capable of punishing a thief. When Jesus was arrested, he chastised Peter for attacking a soldier. That was in keeping with Jesus’s admonition to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”; that is, obey the civil law. The soldier was only doing his duty. Jesus’s followers were to obey lawful authority. Jesus told his followers to put up their swords, not to throw them away. He had, after all, previously told them to go buy swords. (See Luke 22:36).
The most persistent metaphor in the New Testament is the good shepherd. The symbol of the shepherd is a long curved pole called a shepherd’s crook. One purpose of that tool is to defend the flock against predators. It is a deadly weapon. A shepherd who allows local dogs or predatory wolves to kill or injure sheep is not a good shepherd. There is no Biblical reason preventing churches from defending their congregation, their flock.
Civil law also allows the defense of others. Although the laws of each state vary, the general rule is that if the person being attacked could have used deadly force to protect themselves, then you may also use deadly force to defend that other person. The question becomes, is that other person in immediate danger of serious bodily harm or death? If so, you both may use deadly force in defense.
Some states have a duty to retreat (a duty to avoid violence if possible) before self-defense is justified. If the victim can avoid a violent confrontation by leaving the area without endangering his or her life, the victim should to do so. A person who comes to the assistance of another (we will call her the “Good Samaritan”) is usually not under a duty to retreat.
Someone yelling threats is not enough to trip the right to use deadly force. On the other hand, someone chasing someone with an ax may justify a Good Samaritan to act. The Good Samaritan should attempt a verbal warning before intervening with force even if the time between the warning and use of force is very small. Giving a warning looks good if you have to go to court.
A warning may be enough to calm things down…“Hay, leave her alone, I am calling the police”… (click, click with the cell phone camera). Of course, it may also result in the aggressor turning on the Good Samaritan. If that happens then the rules of self-defense govern.
Who is the aggressor, and who is the victim in an incident, can change. For example: Joe punches Tom and runs away. (Tom is the victim, Joe is the aggressor). Tom chases after Joe. Tom is not acting in self-defense. Tom is the aggressor because Joe had stopped his assault and tried to withdraw from the fray.
If we change the circumstances, the legal results change. If Joe has threatened a number of people with a machete, Tom could reason that Joe was a threat to the public at large. Tom’s chasing after Joe to prevent him from harming others is justified. Tom is acting in defense of others. Chasing after a crazy guy with a machete is very dangerous. Tom should call the police and keep his distance unless Joe starts to attack someone.
The intervention of a Good Samaritan is very tricky, especially if she or he is a stranger to the parties. Just because someone is walking around with a weapon does not mean he is a bad guy. He or she might be a police officer, a landscaper, a hunter, or other person acting lawfully.
The use of deadly force to protect property is not generally justified unless the harm caused to the property could cause serious bodily harm to people. For example, using deadly force against an arsonist, or someone trying to release a deadly chemical, or someone trying damage an aircraft in flight might be justified.
If someone shows up at church, and threatens people with a deadly weapon, he is clearly the aggressor. Even then, different circumstances might call for different actions:
1. The aggressor could be a member attending the church who has become hostile for some reason. (e.g. a fired employee.) All people should be treated with respect. In church, all should feel welcome. Many people who are distressed just want someone to listen to them. Those who are distressed should be able to turn to a church in search of help. The deacons, pastor, ushers and even the members need to be compassionate. Without being intrusive or judgmental, they should reach out to people to make them feel welcome, to make it clear that they are willing to listen and to help, if they can, a person who comes to church distraught. As long as talk is possible, people should talk.
2. If a stranger dressed like a ninja appears at the entrance of the sanctuary during services waving a gun―that is a different problem. The attacker, however, may not be that obvious. He or she may appear innocent until the violence begins. A stranger standing in the doorway is not automatically a threat. The intruder needs to take some action that indicates an immediate intent to injure someone. That can take place in a fraction of a second which is why you must think about an attack before it happens.
Every situation is different. On an average, it takes police five minutes to respond to a call. If everyone sits in the pews and does nothing, an intruder can kill a lot of people in five minutes. If everyone tries to save themselves, the intruder wins. The congregation must act as one in defense of all.
Some larger churches have armed security guards. At the Vatican, the Swiss Guards have fancy costumes for tourists but they also have modern weapons and security equipment.
Many smaller churches cannot afford elaborate security systems. Even a small or poor church can do something. The first step is for the church leaders to research the problem and come up with a plan. There are a number of helpful on line programs about church security.
At a minimum, everyone should know the location of all emergency exits. A silent alarm to call police, or having people leave their cell phones on vibrate, as opposed to turning them off, reduces the time to call 911. In the best of circumstances, a lot of damage can be done before the police arrive.
While waiting for the police, anything the congregation can do to confuse the attacker, might save lives. If the attacker is making verbal threats, a totally illogical response might confuse him for a few seconds. “Oh, do you want to stay for coffee?” Most attackers have planned their attack. They assume their victims will panic, do nothing or try to run away screaming in fear. You can cause the attacker to hesitate by not acting as he expects. Delay is in your favor.
If things have progressed beyond communication, then a hostile yell, a war cry of sorts, (not a scream in fear) should be yelled by everyone. Being unexpected, it will cause a slight hesitation. An audible fire alarm, a powerful but sour blast from the organ or power squeal from audio system might have the same impact. At the same time everyone yells, they should throw whatever is handy at the attacker. The unexpected and violent assault should instinctively cause him to duck. That gives those furthest from him time to move away using the pews as partial cover. Do not bunch up, it is harder to hit a moving target, especially if it keeps changing direction. Those closest to the attacker might want to lunge at him, especially if they can do so from different directions. He can only point in one direction at a time. If the attacker has been distracted by flying hymnals, a few people may have enough time to jump him. If the attacker has a gun, grab the barrel and twist it upward. Go after the face or anyplace where the bone is not well padded by muscle. This is a very dangerous course of action. One or more of those who rush the attacker could be seriously hurt. The alternative is that a lot of people will be killed. The reason this person entered your church is to kill as many people as possible, including you.
Most churches do not have a room in which people can barricade themselves. Once the service begins, people will be in an open hall. If they can, they should get out of, and away from, the building unless it is your plan to re-enter the building to rush the attacker from behind. There should be a rally point outside of the building so that people can be accounted for. Those who get out must give the police as much information as possible about what is going on inside.
Oh, you think, I’ll bring my gun to church to protect people. If you do that, there are things you need to consider:
1. Where do you sit? Do you have a clear field of fire? What might be behind the assailant?
2. What type of ammunition would you use? Will it over penetrate and injure a bystander? (Think about using wadcutters or hollow points.) You do not want high powered loads but anything less than a .38 or 9 mm is not going to be effective.
3. What are the walls of your church made of? In a masonry building, a missed round that strikes stone will cause shrapnel like stone chips to fly from the walls.
4. If the assailant is wearing a ballistics vest, will you adjust your point of aim to the head or lower torso?
5. When the adrenalin is pumping, your heart is pounding, and you are scared beyond belief, will you be able to react? Will you remember to turn the safety off? Will you shoot without hesitation?
It will be very noisy. You are accustomed to ear protection when you shoot. If the time comes when you are justified in using deadly force, you will not have time to think, only react. Your plans must be made and you must be ready to act upon them.
One last thing. When the police arrive, they will not know the good guys from the bad. Immediately put your gun down. Do exactly what they tell you to do. Your hearing will be dull from shooting without ear protection. Do not argue with them. Make no sudden moves. Do not bend down to get your purse, reach for your license, pick up your coat or do anything that an officer who is flying high on adrenalin might take as a threat to his life.