Louisville's Bring Your Firearms to Church Day

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Ed Reinke / AP

Ken Pagano, pastor of New Bethel Church in Louisville, Ky., talks about inviting gun owners to bring their pistols to church to celebrate the Fourth of July and Second Amendment

The Rev. Ken Pagano knows what Andy Warhol said about fame, but he has learned firsthand that it can last decidedly longer than 15 minutes. Pagano, pastor of New Bethel Church, an Assemblies of God congregation here in Louisville, Ky., has spent the past few weeks inside an international media maelstrom over his church's upcoming "open carry church service," which is set for this Saturday, June 27. That's when he expects Christians who are both pious and gun-loving to heed his invitation to bring their weapons to church to give thanks for the right to bear arms.

The event, which is not a worship service, has been planned for several months, Pagano tells TIME, but drew little attention until the Louisville Courier-Journal ran a story in early June. Since then, Pagano, 49, a New Jersey native who's been in Kentucky for nearly 30 years and pastor of New Bethel for 10, has been swamped with interview requests. He's granted most of them, although he declined a request from ABC's Nightline to set up during the event because he fears the cameras would be invasive.

Pagano, a former Marine, is a volunteer chaplain for the Louisville Metro Police Department (where he does not carry a weapon). Taking a break from a shift at the indoor gun range where he works one day a week, Pagano tells TIME that he's an avid sport shooter and a proponent of responsible gun ownership. Despite criticism for commingling guns and religion, he stands by his view that Christians are called on to be prepared to defend themselves and their families. "Pacifism is optional for Christians," says Pagano. "It's not a requirement."

He acknowledges that recent news events may color perceptions of the New Bethel event — the murder of Dr. George Tiller, the shooting at the Holocaust Museum and the fatal shooting of a teen near New Bethel Church — but says they actually strengthen his argument that people who own guns should learn how to use them. Yet he also acknowledges the open-carry controversy has grown uglier than he expected and hinted at personal threats from across the religious-political spectrum. Pagano says the church's insurance carrier, after giving an initial go-ahead, has now told him it cannot insure the event. Pagano expects to find coverage before the end of the week and says the event won't be open-carry without it. Without insurance, he explains, "We'd just ask the open-carry folks to leave their guns in their vehicles," adding that people with concealed-carry permits could still bring loaded guns into the sanctuary.

Some locals opposed to Pagano have planned an alternative rally, "Bring Your Peaceful Heart ... Leave Your Gun at Home," which is scheduled to coincide with the New Bethel event. Terry Taylor, executive director of Interfaith Paths to Peace, which organized the rally, told TIME he is particularly troubled by the open-carry service because it gives the wrong impression of Louisville, which he believes is the "spiritual center of the United States" because of its mass of interfaith work, connection to the late monk Thomas Merton and the presence of the Southern Baptist and Presbyterian seminaries and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s national headquarters.

Joe Phelps, pastor of Louisville's Highland Baptist Church, tells TIME he can relate to Pagano's pastoral need to address his members' fears, "but there is nothing in the New Testament — [which] Christians give priority to — to encourage responding to fear with self-defense. To the contrary, the central message of Jesus is that fear should compel us to trust God's mercy in the midst of the fearful situation. In a face-off between the teachings of Jesus and the Constitution, Jesus better win in church."

David Lowley, a New Bethel elder and board member, tells TIME the service is simply an effort to "think outside the box" and increase outreach. He says he raised several what-if scenarios, and after extensive discussion, the board green-lit the idea last year. He says he did not anticipate the level of attention but adds that "it is what it is, because the Lord made it be what it is. We'll go with it and take from there and see."