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FBI agent — or Russian agent? What does Charlie McGonigal know about 2016?

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He clutched a battered backpack.

Congregation deacons who edged closer heard him murmuring to himself. Suddenly, the man screamed, “Get back, demons!”

The deacons grabbed the man and hustled him outside. He opened the backpack for them. It contained t-shirts and a screwdriver. They called 911 — and gave the man cinnamon rolls and coffee to go. They later learned he was schizophrenic and homeless.

No one in the church was harmed that day. Yet for a moment, the pastor, who described the never-before-reported scene with Raw Story on condition that he and his church not be named, had wished he had been carrying his Beretta APX handgun while preaching from the pulpit. He had worked in law enforcement and in security so he would often quip that he had “muscle memory” of a gun at his hip. But he later acknowledged to church elders that he wasn’t a skilled enough marksman to shoot someone without accidentally wounding congregants.

The pastor’s predicament — keep houses of worship gun-free or go armed to the pulpit — is no longer novel. Recent, violent attacks on houses of worship — from Texas to South Carolina to Pennsylvania to Alabama — compel Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists alike to protect their congregations while still embracing their missions of welcoming strangers and comforting the sick.

Watch: Brooklyn bishop robbed at gunpoint while livestreaming church service

More than four in five Black voters rank crime as their top concern, according to a 2020 Pew Research poll.

And states such as New York, for example, are tackling the problem by banning guns from “sensitive” places throughout the state, including houses of worship.

But not all clergy believe New York state’s approach is correct. They’re willing to fight for their convictions, too: Expect 2023 to bring a pitched legal battle — one with notable political and partisan undertones — over whether guns are the ideal protection God’s shepherds can offer their flocks.

Already, two Black evangelical ministers, a white evangelical pastor, and a synagogue leader are suing to lift that ban.

The results of these cases could have national implications.

A GUN-OWNER’S VIEW FROM THE PULPIT

The two Black pastors suing to pack heat from the pulpit minister in high-crime neighborhoods in Buffalo, N.Y., and nearby Niagara Falls.

One of the pastors, Trinity Baptist Church Rev. Jimmie Hardaway Jr., is so devoted to his Niagara Falls community that he serves as a public school substitute teacher in addition to ministering to his congregation.

His church is near Gluck Park, where volunteers installed colorful playground equipment a few years ago and picnics, block parties, and children’s fun fairs are increasingly common. But locals say that at night, men go there to drink, and fights often escalate into gunfire. Hardaway says he carried a licensed gun for protection before the new ban on firearms in churches became law.

Hardaway’s fellow plaintiff is the Rev. Larry Boyd of Open Praise Full Gospel Baptist Church who serves Buffalo’s historic Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood — a diverse community dotted with restaurants serving Polish, Vietnamese, Bangladeshi and soul food.

The predominantly Black East Side neighborhood recently won $10 million in grants for streetlights, a new park and farmers’ market. But gun violence from within threatens East Buffalo, and last year, an out-of-town white supremacist traveled from across the state and killed 10 people at the local Tops Friendly Markets grocery store.

Hardaway has befriended New York State Jewish Gun Club founder Tzvi Waldman, a leader in Rockland County’s Hasidic community, after meeting in a Facebook discussion group focused on gun laws and small businesses. Waldman, too, is suing to lift New York state’s gun ban for synagogues.

Waldman introduced Hardaway to the law firm Cooper & Kirk — a firm that Hardaway said was looking for religious leaders to be pro bono plaintiffs.

READ: This election ‘prayer warrior’ recruiting MAGA pastor’s revenue mysteriously grew to $5 million a year

Waldman told Raw Story that the Hasidic faithful don’t use phones or drive cars on Sabbath so they sometimes worry about anti-Semitic encounters as they walk to worship. He says he believes Jewish worshippers are safer if he’s armed whether they are praying or communing indoors or out.

His club, meanwhile, teaches gun safety as well as first-aid and marksmanship.

“If you’re prepared to take a life you should learn how to save a life,” he explained. The religious leaders’ legal fight is about defending innocent people from those who will do them harm.

“We don’t want to be a militia. We don’t hate government,” Waldman said, adding that hopes for the day when gun violence will be an interfaith issue with churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples sharing information and searching for solutions.

“Military personnel live in a different universe from ours when they train to defend themselves and others. Not everyone can put themselves in the combat mindset,” Waldman said.

LAWYERS WITH POWERFUL GOP CLIENTS

Cooper & Kirk is no mom-and-pop outfit. On the contrary, it’s built itself into a powerful legal force, particularly in conservative circles.

For example, the Miami Herald reported that it earned $5.9 million from legal wrangling spawned by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis culture war sorties, including blocking felons from voting, opposing vaccination requirements and advocating for the Parental Rights in Education bill, or so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill because of its prohibition on discussing sexual orientation or gender identity with young public school students.

Cooper & Kirk’s other Republican clients include Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, former national security adviser John Bolton, and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Hardaway told Raw Story there’s one key difference between himself and many of Cooper & Kirk’s other clients.

“I’m a Democrat,” he said.

Hardaway has no plans to convert to the GOP.

READ: What Memphis police videos didn’t show before cops beat Tyre Nichols

“I just accepted free legal help offered from an effective law firm,” he explained.

But he’s nevertheless been bombarded with right-wing media interview requests.

“Everyone wants to be my friend,” Hardaway said. “They want me to say I agree with them on guns. But I don’t agree on everything although I’d like to build on what we have in common.”

Hardaway, for example, disagrees with GOP opposition to universal background checks. He supports red flag alerts, which the National Rifle Association and its affiliates detest. And he supports a ban on gun sales to those convicted of domestic violence which GOP elected officials fight against.

Hardaway expressed gratitude toward Cooper & Kirk lawyers who research the right-wingers requesting interviews with him then share their candid assessments of the interviewers with Hardaway. It helps him deflect those who might make him or his church uncomfortable.

“Cooper & Kirk researched our church’s social media before they represented us to make sure we weren’t crazy or strange,” Hardaway recalls.

Cooper & Kirk managing partner and Harvard magna cum laude alum David Thompson declined Raw Story’s interview request, citing a heavy workload.

A separate lawsuit against New York involves the white evangelicals at His Family Tabernacle in the low-crime village of Horseheads, N.Y.

First Liberty Institute, a Texas law firm with powerful GOP connections, represents the church’s leader, the Rev. Michael Spencer, who told Charisma News — an online religious magazine that prints “prophecies” of Trump’s return to power — that he fears attacks by “lunatics, whether they be demon-possessed, whether they just be individuals that are God-haters.”

First Liberty Institute’s CEO, Kelly Shackelford, has been friends with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for 30 years.

The Associated Press reports that when Paxton took office in 2015, “his first, most prominent hires were First Liberty attorneys.” First Liberty lawyers were on the 2016 Trump White House transition team.

Spencer is also represented by President George W. Bush’s U.S. Solicitor General, Paul Clement, one of an elite handful of lawyers who has argued more than 100 U.S. Supreme Court cases.

Now in private practice, the New York Times called Clement a “rock star” among oil industry lawyers. Clement’s unswerving devotion to the National Rifle Association exploded into melodrama on June 23, the day he won a case for an NRA ally.

Minutes after Clement’s victory, his employer, Kirkland & Ellis, announced it would never take another Second Amendment case. Clement and SCOTUS litigator Kim Murphy immediately resigned from Kirkland and announced they would found their own firm with the NRA as a client.

The month before this legal clash, America was devastated by massacres at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and the mass shooting in Buffalo. Social media trolls defending the NRA by posting bogus false flag theories prompted lawyers to debate whether scorched earth gun enthusiasts were a good fit for their talents.

Shira Feldman, an attorney for the nonprofit Brady United Against Gun Violence, said that powerful, conservative law firms can afford to take on pro bono gun cases.

“If a law firm representing the gun industry sues a state or city and wins, they could be eligible for attorneys’ fees paid by the state or city,” Feldman told Raw Story. “Litigation can be long and expensive, and municipal budgets are often very limited. Fortunately, this hasn’t discouraged cities and towns from continuing to pass and defend important life-saving gun laws that keep our communities safe.”

LEARN TO SHOOT BEFORE TAKING A GUN TO CHURCH

Paul Lake grew up in rural Alabama with a family who taught him gun safety and marksmanship. A former policeman and volunteer EMT, he trained a safety team for his church years ago. He left a corporate world job to launch Dallas-based Sentry One Consulting whose clients range from congregations of 200 to megachurches of 15,000.

And Lake doesn’t believe everyone should handle a gun, “not even in the Wild West.”

He advises against pastors being armed in pulpits regardless of their shooting skills.

“Most congregations want pastors focused on their sermons and their roles of comforting and guiding congregations,” Lake said.

Lake advises churches to hire off-duty police for security.

Since that’s not financially feasible for all places of worship, Lake teaches safety teams to stop potentially dangerous people before they enter a sanctuary. Doorway greeters and parking lot guides should warn each other and sanctuary deacons using walkie-talkies or phone apps when they spot a disoriented or angry person.

Pastors, in particular, should be aware of worshippers’ mental health triggers; job loss, divorce, an IRS audit.

These steps can prove more powerful — and effective — than any pistol-packing pastor.

“If the only thing you know about guns is which end to point at the bad guy, you aren’t going to be able to help a church safety team,” Lake told Raw Story.

For armed church security guards, Lake and his Sentry employees test volunteers, who must clear their guns from their holsters and jackets, unlock the safety and shoot accurately in less than two seconds. Lake sees the test as literally life and death. He studied security camera video of a 2019 Texas church shooting. In less than five seconds, a stranger whips out a sawed-off shotgun to kill an armed volunteer and an usher. If a worshiper is too slow, Sentry urges him to take an unarmed protective role.

CAN GUN VIOLENCE BRING NEW VOTES TO THE GOP?

In struggling segments of a city, even residents who never enter urban houses of worship can appreciate their impact. Sociologists describe houses of worship as oases that keep a neighborhood vibrant in harsh times by offering free pantries, social hubs, mentoring and a moral compass.

During Buffalo’s December blizzard, for example, a pastor opened his church to more than 154 neighbors without power and shared his family’s stocked fridge for days.

Likewise, when a congregant is killed or wounded by gun violence, the church is there to comfort the bereaved long after the candle-lit sidewalk altars of photos and flowers disappear.

In 2020, pro-gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety surveyed more than 1,000 Black voters about their most urgent issues. Gun violence was a top priority. But 96 percent wanted a candidate who supports background checks for all gun sales, a position the GOP base emphatically opposes. And 93 percent support disarming domestic abusers and red flag laws.

While the days when houses of worship could comfortably leave their doors open all night for lost souls searching for supernatural comfort have largely passed, Pastors such as Hardaway still hope they can be what Psalm 91 describes as a fortress where visitors don’t fear the “terror of night nor the arrow that flies by day.”

While the court battles over defensive weapons in churches ensue, Lake urges church safety teams to remember their primary mission — being an ambassador of their faith, and using that faith as a shield and protection.

Lake explains: “A greeter could say, “Brother, it looks as if something is troubling you or weighing on your heart. Would you like to talk or pray with me?”

A teammate can call 911, just in case. As Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 10, be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.

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