Catholic bishops, other religious leaders asking top court to uphold gun restriction
Evangelical group sides with abusive gun owner in what could become landmark case
Organizations of Catholics, mainline Protestants, Jews and other faiths — but not evangelical Protestants — are among those that have formally urged the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a federal gun-control law that bans gun ownership by persons subject to a domestic-violence restraining order.
The U.S. Catholic bishops organization and an interfaith coalition have separately filed friend-of-the-court briefs arguing that the high court should uphold the law, technically known as 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(8), and both briefs base parts of their arguments on religious traditions.
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On the other side is an evangelical organization, the Alabama-based Foundation for Moral Law, that claims the right to self-defense comes from God and wants the high court to strike down the law.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the case, United States v. Rahimi, on Nov. 7. It involves a Texas man, Zackey Rahimi, who had a civil protective order issued against him in February 2020 after assaulting his then-girlfriend and firing a gun at someone who had witnessed the incident. The order prevented him from going near the woman he attacked and also prohibited him from gun ownership.
In 2021, police searched Rahimi’s home and found a rifle and a pistol. He was then charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(8).
Rahimi was found guilty by a Texas federal district court, and a panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that verdict under the terms of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). After the appeals panel ruled against Rahimi but before his case could be heard by the full appeals court, the Supreme Court made its controversial 2022 Supreme Court ruling, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen. In that ruling, the high court determined that gun control laws should be upheld only if the government can show that the laws fall within the “historical tradition of firearm regulation.”
After the Bruen decision, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found that 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(8) was unconstitutional and reversed Rahimi’s conviction. Then the U.S. government appealed to the Supreme Court to reinstate Rahimi’s conviction. This case’s ascent to the Supreme Court was unusually rapid: The 5th Circuit made its decision in March of this year, and the high court agreed to accept the appeal in June, possibly because of how its Bruen decision was being interpreted differently among the various federal courts.
While theoretically the Supreme Court’s ruling in Rahimi could come at any time, the court traditionally doesn’t announce decisions in its most publicized cases, of which this is one, until the near the end of its term in June or early July.
Sixty-some organizations and individuals filed friend-of-the-court (also known as amicus curiae) briefs involving Rahimi. Most of the supporters of the federal law are involved with anti-domestic-violence and/or gun control efforts; they generally argue that keeping guns away from dangerous people is part of the American historical tradition. Most of the opponents of the federal law argue that gun ownership is a civil right steeped in history and that the federal law is therefore unconstitutional.
Here’s a quick look at the amicus curiae arguments from the religious organizations:
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
One of the main arguments made by the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops comes close to being uniquely Catholic: The Catholic Church is one based on centuries-long traditions, and as a result Catholics have much experience on applying old traditions to new situations. One way that is done, the bishops point out, is examining the principles behind the traditions:
Under Bruen, firearms restrictions must be consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of such regulations. Since consistency with tradition requires continuity of principles, this Court should take into account the basic principles of social order embodied in the Constitution and that the Nation’s traditions have sought to uphold. These principles include promoting the common good by upholding human life and dignity and showing special care for the weak and vulnerable.
Another of those principles, the bishops argue, is protecting family members from abuse:
[H]istory shows that the United States has traditionally protected spouses and children from abusive intimate partners or parents, though the modern day recognizes the need to do so more fully. The history also reveals that, since the Founding era, firearms have been regulated to protect the vulnerable from the risk of violence at the hands of those who have shown themselves willing to engage in it.
Section 922(g)(8) is thus entirely consistent with these principles. The law targets only those who have demonstrated a propensity for violence in violation of their duty to possess and use weapons responsibly and is narrowly tailored to prevent violence to specific individuals who have already demonstrated their need for governmental intervention by petitioning for a restraining order from a state court. This sort of individualized protection respects the rights of law-abiding gun owners and is analogous to early laws restricting those deemed a threat to others from bearing arms.
Religious Leaders and Organizations
More than a dozen religious organizations from a wide range of theological views signed on as amici curiae to another brief, describing themselves as “faith-based organizations, and leaders within those organizations, with a shared commitment to promoting the safety of domestic violence victims.”
Among the participants were Jewish Women International; a group of Episcopal bishops; rabbis from the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jewish traditions; the Peaceful Families Project, a Muslim group; several Catholic organizations; the Interfaith Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, which includes Catholics, mainline Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Unitarians and Sikhs; organizations serving victims of domestic violence; and the Sojourners ministry.
Unusually for a legal brief, the document included numerous statements of spiritual perspectives, such as this one by Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, the Chicago Catholic archbishop:
In order to uproot our culture of violence, in which so many seem to prioritize the right to bear arms over the right to life, we must learn to see one another in a deeper way. Not as avatars of this or that ideology. Not as competitors in a kind of team sport looking to put points on the board. But rather, as members of the same human family who deserve respect. For religious believers, we trace that conviction to our belief that God created all of us in his image. It is my fervent prayer that as the United States continues to be brutalized by this wave of gun violence, we as a people may come to see one another with the eyes of God, with love.
The brief also tells the personal stories of pastors and other spiritual mentors who had dealt with domestic violence through their ministries. Collectively, the brief argues, the stories demonstrate the “critical need” for the court to find the federal law constitutional.
The brief seemed to make a direct appeal to one of the court’s conservative justices, Amy Coney Barrett, by quoting from a dissent of hers when she was on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. She had written: “History is consistent with common sense: it demonstrates that legislatures have the power to prohibit dangerous people from possessing guns.”
It is common sense, the brief argued, “to limit the right to bear arms in a manner that will ensure that those arms are kept out of the hands of violent domestic abusers.” Also, “there is no conflict between history and common sense.”
Foundation for Moral Law
The Foundation for Moral Law describes itself as an “Alabama-based, national public-interest organization dedicated to the strict interpretation of the Constitution as intended by its Framers to recognize and secure our God-given rights.”
On its website, the group declares its belief in the Holy Scriptures as the infallible Word of God and “that the United States of America was founded on the laws of Nature and Nature’s God, and that Almighty God is sovereign over the affairs of men, exercising jurisdiction over the family, church, state, and each individual.”
The foundation’s amicus curiae brief derives its argument from the belief that “the natural right to self-defense is necessary to both enjoy and protect our other God-given rights.”
Gun ownership was essential to the founding of the United States, the brief declares:
The United States of America as we know it owes its existence to the right of private ownership of firearms. Had American Patriots not had a long historical tradition of firearm ownership, the Revolutionary War would be remembered today as a simple colonial insurrection, dispatched with ease by the British Crown.
Instead, Americans’ deep-rooted history of private firearm ownership enabled the defense of life, liberty, and property, and birth of the United States of America. Out of this bloody travail, the Founders enshrined the God-given right to private firearm ownership in the Second Amendment as “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”
After reviewing the history of gun ownership in the early United States, the brief concludes that the Constitution prevents the federal government from enacting restrictions on gun ownership. Of the law at the center of the case, the brief said: “The Founders who ratified the Constitution on behalf of their respective states would have never tolerated such a restriction.”