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Judge strikes down gun law: Churches win after spearheading conceal-and-carry bill add-on

Minnesota's handgun permitting law was declared unconstitutional Tuesday by a Ramsey County District judge in a lawsuit brought by several churches, including one in Moorhead, and other groups.


Minnesota's handgun permitting law was declared unconstitutional Tuesday by a Ramsey County District judge in a lawsuit brought by several churches, including one in Moorhead, and other groups.

Judge John Finley said the Legislature violated the state constitution last year by attaching the so-called conceal-and-carry bill with a "totally unrelated bill relating to the Department of Natural Resources."

Attorney Marshall Tanick, who represented the two original churches in the case, said he expected the decision to affect the entire state.

"It's a rather sweeping decision," he said.

The state constitution prohibits laws from embracing more than one subject.


"Our state has prided itself in its openness in all areas of government. ... This basic Minnesota value is totally frustrated when the Legislature itself clearly violates the underpinnings of such a basic conscience-guided law and constitutional provision," Finley wrote in his opinion.

Lawyers on both sides of the issue were scrambling Tuesday to determine the immediate impact of the ruling.

"That's a real good question that I don't think anyone knows at the moment," said Joe Olson, a Hamline University Law School professor who is president of a group called Concealed Carry Reform Now.

Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch said he would appeal Finley's ruling for several reasons, including the rigid application of the single-subject rule in the constitution.

He said the Legislature frequently passes laws containing unrelated subjects.

"At the end of the session, every legislator across the country tends to put a law together that has everything, a real Dagwood sandwich," Hatch said.

He also referred to multi-subject bills as "garbage" or "Christmas tree" laws, but said he doesn't think the gun bill qualifies as one.

Minnesota's handgun laws will essentially revert back to what they were before the conceal-and-carry law passed, he said.


The top law enforcement officer in a given jurisdiction, usually a police chief or sheriff, once again has broad discretion to approve or deny pending applications, Hatch said.

Handgun permits issued since the law went into effect are unaffected and will be valid until they expire, he said.

More than 22,000 Minnesotans have received handgun permits since the law was changed just over a year ago. That's about twice as many permits as were issued the previous year, but well short of projections that as many as 90,000 permits would be issued in the first three years of the new law.

The new law guaranteed a permit to most adults who receive required training, pay an application fee and pass a background check, unlike the old system in which Hatch said top cops had "unbridled discretion" to deny permits.

Sheriffs in Clay and Becker counties said Tuesday they were not sure how the ruling would affect their departments and declined to comment on the ruling until after the Minnesota Sheriff's Association advised them on the ruling's effects.

Jim Franklin, the association's executive director, said the lawsuit caught his organization by surprise.

"We were not tracking it, we were not aware of it, we were not up to date on it," he said. "It leaves everyone in a quandary."

Private building owners began posting signs at public entrances banning handguns. But the law prevented private establishments from banning firearms in parking lots.


Church leaders first argued in a separate lawsuit in Hennepin County - filed shortly before the law went into effect last year - that the law infringed on religious freedom and that churches should be allowed to prohibit guns on their properties. A judge denied the churches' request but relieved them of detailed rules in the law on how property owners should warn people that guns are not welcome in their buildings.

The lawsuit in Ramsey County, filed last fall, took aim at the way in which the law was passed. It was joined by other congregations from different denominations across the state, as well as nonprofits and the city of Minneapolis.

The Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and Trinity Lutheran Church, both of Moorhead, joined the suit. Officials with both organizations were unavailable for comment Tuesday.

Olson said he wasn't surprised by the ruling, but expected the state Court of Appeals might issue a stay in the case, meaning the new law would stay in place while the ruling is appealed.

"This case was destined for the Minnesota Supreme Court from the beginning," Olson said. "The faster it gets there, the better."

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