By Suzi Parker
LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - The Arkansas House of Representatives approved a bill on Monday to allow concealed-carry permit holders to take their weapons into churches, and it is expected to be signed into law by the state's governor.
The Church Protection Act would allow individual places of worship to decide whether to allow concealed handguns and who could carry them. The Republican-controlled House passed the bill 85-8 with bipartisan support. The measure previously passed the Republican-controlled Senate 28-4.
Arkansas joins a handful of other states, including South Carolina, Wyoming and Louisiana, that allow guns in churches, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Gun control and gun rights issues have dominated the public conversation since a gunman shot dead 20 children and six adults at an elementary school December 14 in Newtown, Connecticut.
Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe, a Democrat, was expected to sign the bill into law. His spokesman, Matt DeCample, said that Beebe "wants to continue the discussion with lawmakers and church leaders this session."
"We've had members of the faith community reach out to us with concerns, particularly liability concerns for churches," DeCample said.
Nicholas Stehle, a member of the board of directors of the advocacy group Arkansas Carry said that it was a smart bill.
"It was past time for the legislature to get out of the business of our churches, and it appears that at least 113 legislators agree," Stehle said. "This pro-First Amendment bill gives churches that can't afford private security staff the ability to provide a safe environment for their congregants."
Robert Klein, a minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Little Rock, was one of the religious leaders to express concern.
"I speak only for myself, but I am opposed to anyone other than trained law enforcement professionals carrying guns into a church - and with them only when they are required to carry their weapons by their agency or are requested to do so by the congregation," he said.
He said that tensions are often high in religious communities including life stresses.
"I want to offer those who come into congregations the safety and sanctuary that has traditionally served as a hallmark of congregations," he said "To add the uncertainty about who might be carrying a weapon into the mix is an unnecessary and inappropriate result of this legislation."
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who was once a Southern Baptist minister, told Reuters that guns had saved lives in some churches. "A couple of cases - the church in Colorado where a crazed shooter was stopped by an off-duty deputy who had her gun - probably saved a lot of lives," he said.
Huckabee was apparently referring to a case in Aurora, Colorado last April in which a man crashed his car outside the church, and then shot and killed the pastor's mother, who had come out to help. The man was then shot and killed by an off-duty Denver police officer who was a member of the church, according to the Denver Post.
(Reporting By Suzi Parker; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Leslie Gevirtz)