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Controversial Harford bills to arm churchgoers, teachers going nowhere in General Assembly session

Two controversial handgun carry bills sponsored by Harford County legislators – one to arm churchgoers and the other to arm teachers and other school employees – have gone nowhere in the 2018 Maryland General Assembly session.

Del. Kathy Szeliga, one of the sponsors of what was called the Parishioner Protection Act of 2018, said she will try again next year as she expects her bill won't leave the House Judiciary Committee before the session ends at midnight Monday.


House Bill 758 had a hearing March 6, but "with Monday being the end of session, I'm sure it won't come up for a vote," Szeliga said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, one local Episcopal Church pastor, who actively supported the legislation, has received pushback from church authorities, a Harford County Council member said earlier this week.


The Senate version of the church carry bill sponsored by the late Sen. H. Wayne Norman Jr. was withdrawn, according to Szeliga. Norman died suddenly on March 4 at age 62. His widow, Linda, was appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan to fill out the remainder of his term through this year.

"For this year, the [House] bill is not going anywhere, but I will bring it back next year, and often times it takes a couple of years before you get a bill passed," Szeliga said.

Norman had not drafted his version for the Senate correctly, Szeliga wrote in a follow-up text message Thursday.

The Parishioner Protection Act, which had the support of Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler and several members of the local clergy, would have given leaders of religious institutions the authority to select parishioners who have had firearms training and hold a valid state-issued handgun permit to carry firearms on church property in order to protect the congregation from an active shooter.

Gahler said during a press conference last December, a few weeks before the 2018 legislative session started, that he had asked state legislators to pursue a solution in Annapolis allowing worshippers to protect themselves, following recent mass shootings in churches and workplaces.

Some church leaders had been allowing parishioners such as off-duty police officers or civilians with a concealed carry permit to have their firearms with them during services, and they had expressed their concerns about safety to the Sheriff's Office.

Another bill that did not get out of committee this session is HB-760, sponsored by Del. Rick Impallaria. It would have authorized school districts across the state to permit teachers and other school employees who hold a handgun permit to carry firearms on school property.

Impallaria has been working on legislation to arm school employees for several years, citing concerns about school safety following a shooting at Perry Hall High School in Baltimore County in 2012 — Impallaria's district covers western Harford and eastern Baltimore County.


The issue took on greater urgency following the deaths of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. on Feb. 14. There were calls around the country to arm teachers, including from President Donald J. Trump, but there also have been opposing movements for stricter gun control laws and not allowing teachers to carry firearms.

A hearing in the Judiciary Committee was held March 6, according to the General Assembly website. Two weeks later, on March 20, a student at Great Mills High School in St. Mary's County shot two fellow students before turning the handgun on himself and committing suicide. One of the other students, a 16-year-old, later died of her injuries.

More than 40 people spoke in favor of his bill while five spoke against it, but the bill did not get a committee vote, Impallaria said via text message Thursday.

He said he "positively" plans to bring the legislation back next year.

On Tuesday, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, Gahler and Superintendent of Schools Barbara Canavan jointly announced the county could have armed police officers in all public middle schools by the start of school in the fall, augmenting officers already assigned to all high schools and a handful of middle schools.

The trio said they would also be studying how best to provide more police protecting to 33 elementary schools that do not have a officer on duty.


'A matter of free speech'

The Rev. Thomas Allen, of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Abingdon, had been active supporter of the Parishioner Protection Act, appearing with Gahler, Szeliga, Norman and two other pastors at December's press conference where plans to file the bill were announced.

"We hear now that Episcopal bishop of Maryland is attempting to remove Father Tommy [Allen] from St. Mary's parish because of his speaking out, his ability to have his Constitutional right and standing with Sheriff Gahler," County Councilman James McMahan said during Tuesday night's council session.

"Well I for one will voice my objection for any minister being censured in such a dramatic fashion, for exerting his or her Constitutional right to speak out," the councilman continued. "If you support that basic right I hope you also will support this priest in his endeavor."

McMahan said he would write an email to the bishop, and he encouraged people to contact his office if they wanted to contact the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, too.

Allen is still listed as the rector of St. Mary's on the church website and the Episcopal Church's online listing on local churches throughout the U.S.


Reached Wednesday afternoon, Allen responded by email: "It would not be prudent for me to comment on this situation at this time. I appreciate Jim's [McMahan's] support and his willingness to be supportive of my presence in the community."

Allen was joined at the December press conference by the Rev. Don Dove, of Living Hope Presbyterian Church in Havre de Grace, and the Rev. Jeff Berg, of Forest Ridge Baptist Church in Forest Hill.

"The best way to check a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, who is adequately trained to assess and address a potentially violent situation," Allen said afterward.

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He lamented a state of affairs in which pastors must consider allowing their parishioners to carry firearms, saying "this is not where I'd want to be, but this is where we are."

Carrie Graves, director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, said officials cannot comment on any personnel matters or disciplinary proceedings for clergy or lay employees, even to say if disciplinary proceedings are happening, until they are resolved.

Graves did say clergy can speak out on political issues.


"We don't monitor clergy's speech," she said.

"Clergy have the freedom to speak out on issues ... anything that concerns the community and the work of God in the community," she said.

McMahan said he knows Allen as "a casual friend and one of the many clergy that I feel privileged to know throughout the county."

"I'm here to protect anybody, anybody's right to free speech," McMahan, an Army veteran, said.