Watchmen on the Walls of Jerusalem: Church Security in Legal Perspective

“When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe” – Luke 11:21

Recent events in the United States prove that security at places of worship is as important as ever. On December 29, 2019, a gunman entered the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas, opening fire and fatally shooting two congregants before being shot and killed by member of the church’s security team. This occurred only one day after a man wielding a machete burst into a Hanukkah celebration at the home of a Hasidic rabbi in Monsey, New Jersey, stabbing three people before being fought off. In recent years, anti-religious violence has escalated and attacks on places of worship have become more frequent. Examples include the April 2019 synagogue attack in Poway, California that resulted in one dead and three wounded; the November 2017 attack on the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, that left 26 dead and 20 wounded; and the June 2015 shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine dead and one wounded.

In light of these recent tragedies, it is wise for your church or ministry to consider what steps you should take to protect worshippers and participants from being victims of violent incidents like this. But simply having armed individuals at places of worship may not be an effective solution and may also lead to legal liability for your ministry if done improperly. In this article, we will discuss the legal issues associated with implementing security teams and security policies.

To Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Required: Security and the Duty of Care

To understand the importance of security for ministries, it’s important to understand the legal duties that ministries have to persons on the ministry’s property. Under the tort law of most states, any property owner who invites persons onto their property has a duty to protect invitees against unreasonable risk of physical harm. This duty is enhanced when the property owner has a special relationship with the invitee or when the invitee is a minor or is severely disabled. This duty may also require a ministry to abide by its policies and procedures for responding in certain scenarios or be liable if it does not.

At present, the duty of care may not require churches and ministries to implement formal security policies or to employ security personnel. Yet the rising frequency of violent incidents may trigger claims against ministries for failure to take reasonable protective measures. If ministries have security policies that they do not actually follow, they stand a much greater chance of being liable for their failure to abide by those policies.

Also, ministries may have a moral obligation as spiritual shepherds to provide reasonable protection to those in their sheepfolds. Worshippers and participants are likely to enjoy a higher level of spiritual experience with your ministry when they can participate with the confidence that they are safe.

Wise as Serpents; Harmless as Doves: Adopting and Implementing Policies and Procedures

Forming a security plan or a security team for your ministry should be undertaken with much wisdom. While protecting worshipers from violence is certainly a key function of a security team, neutralizing attackers should not be your sole concern when creating security policies. A security plan should also plan for responding not only to shooters, but to handle unarmed disruptive persons during worship (including those with mental illness), missing children, medical emergencies, fires, natural disaster, evacuations, and lockdowns. Simply having armed personnel at worship services or ministry activities does not adequately deal with all these situations. Your ministry, especially if it is large, may need to adopt comprehensive policies and procedures and to train all ministry personnel on the execution of those procedures.

While the internet offers lots of seemingly easy solutions to various problems, a “canned” or templated security program downloaded from the internet is probably NOT effective or appropriate, because it is unlikely to be fitted to your ministry’s needs. Every ministry is different, and your ministry’s policies and procedures should be specifically tailored to the size and nature of your activities, the characteristics of your facilities, and your personnel logistics. This will likely require input and collaboration from various persons within your organization. It is also very important to consult with your organization’s attorney when drafting any policy documents.

As for the substance of a security policy, the plans and procedures should be geared towards preventing or quickly stopping violent incidents or other endangering events. This is where thinking hypothetically and outside of the box will be very helpful. Imagine hypothetical circumstances and how they can be prevented or neutralized. For instance, in the worst case scenario, an active shooter at a place of worship, can you ensure that a shooter is recognized and stopped in the parking lot before he or she enters the building? What kinds of behaviors exhibited by suspicious persons will trigger a response from the security team? What will that response consist of? These are among the many questions to consider when formulating a security plan for your ministry.

Once you have drafted and adopted policies and procedures and procedures, don’t simply put them away in a folder. Security policies that are not actually implemented are not worth the storage space they take. Dusty policy documents that nobody knows about may be resurrected in a lawsuit. It is vital that all relevant personnel not only know that there is a policy, but that they are familiar with the policy and its implementation. This will involve training all relevant staff.

Sell Your Cloak and Buy a Sword: Investing in a Security Team

Your organization may not have the resources to hire professional security personnel. Rather than spend the money to hire professional security guards, many smaller ministries tend to rely on several of their gun-toting laity to serve as a de facto brothers-in-arms security force. Regardless of who your security personnel are, they should be carefully selected and thoroughly trained for the job. Hiring or selecting untrained or unexperienced members of your security team can possibly lead to liability for your organization, for the same reasons that hiring or selecting untrained or unqualified child care providers can.

If an incident is mishandled by an incompetent or trigger-happy member of your ministry’s security team and someone is injured as a result, your ministry may be found negligent. This is why it is important not only to carefully screen and select security personnel, but to ensure that they are adequately trained. This does not mean that every member of the security team must be former military or law enforcement, but having persons with that experience on the team is very helpful. While you may not have the funds to employ professional security, having your security team undergo periodic training by professionals on security responses is a worthy investment that will pay off by enhancing your ministry’s security and minimizing liability. Be sure to heavily document all screening, selection, and training of security personnel.

Pew-pew in the Pews: The Concealed Carry Question

Many ministries, especially small churches in gun-friendly states, rely on the number of heat-packing persons in their pews as a defense or deterrent in the event of violent incidents or attacks. However, no number of armed parishioners is a substitute for a vigilant security team proactively monitoring the premises and trained for a coordinated response to incidents.

But there is an argument that concealed firearms do add security. Your ministry’s policies concerning concealed deadly weapons should fit your ministry activities, your people, and your values. Just because a person has a license to carry a concealed firearm, it does not mean that they have an unlimited right to carry a gun anywhere and everywhere. Owners of private property, including places of worship, have the right to restrict even the lawful carrying of firearms on their property (with the exception of firearms carried by on-duty law enforcement). When it comes to a ministry’s policy toward concealed carry, there are three broad approaches, each of which has benefits and drawbacks.

The first approach is to restrict the carrying of arms on your premises exclusively to the security team. While strict and perhaps difficult to enforce, one benefit of this policy is that it ensures that any person suspected of carrying a firearm, whether they appear sketchy or not, can be approached, confronted, and told to take the firearm back to their vehicle. It may bring comfort to some in the congregation to know that the only firearms permitted in the building are those carried by persons extensively trained to use them. Under this strict approach, you are less likely to be held negligent for someone’s unauthorized action with a firearm. But law-abiding, responsible individuals who carry guns not only for their own protection, but for that of others, may be offended.

The second approach is authorize only select members or attendees at worship services who are not security team members to carry firearms. This is a compromise approach that is more likely to satisfy members of opposite persuasions on firearms issues; both those who insist on carrying, and those opposed to carrying firearms. This allows you to require a certain documented level of training for these individuals as well.

The third possible approach is a laissez-faire policy of allowing any lawfully-licensed person to carry a concealed weapon at your ministry events. The benefits of this policy mean the maximum number of armed and defense-ready persons in the pews in the event of an attack. However, because there would almost certainly be no coordination in the defensive reaction among all of the armed persons, some speculate that a multitude of unsynchronized armed individuals is a recipe for greater chaos and confusion in the event of an attack. Note that even if you do have a loose policy with respect to weapons at your organization, if you know or have reason to know that an individual is carrying a firearm unlawfully, then that might be a strong indication of that individual’s bad motives for being armed, and such a person should be confronted by the security team in any event.

Only your organization’s leadership can make an accurate call as to which of these three approaches are most appropriate for your ministry in light of the culture and demographics or your congregation and the particular characteristics of your activities and facilities.

Beareth Not the Sword in Vain: Exercising Prudence and Caution in Security Issues

While this article discusses principles in how your ministry might handle security and firearms issues, it is not an exhaustive guide to this issue and it cannot substitute for professional advice from a licensed and experienced attorney for your particular situation. Plus, in some states and municipalities, the designation of any personnel as “security” implicates various regulations or laws. By even creating a “security team” without proper formalities, your ministry might be getting into a legal mess. Also, notify your insurer before forming a security team. If your church’s security policies and procedures conflicted with your obligations under an insurance policy, it then might not even cover incidents arising from armed security teams.

In today’s world, a well-prepared ministry may do better. For instance, it is estimated that there would have been heavy loss of life in the West Freeway Church had the security team not been armed and ready.


Featured Image by Rebecca Sidebotham.

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations