As a small child I was attracted to George Henry Boughton’s 1867 painting “Pilgrims Going to Church.” Over the years, and now as Plymouth Rock Foundation’s Chairman of the Board, it has become my favorite of all Pilgrim art, for it portrays the Pilgrims as a small, devout band of believers risking danger to attend church and worship God. 

This painting is partially based on the 1627 letter of Isaac de Rassieres, Secretary to the Director-General of the New Netherlands colony in Manhattan, describing his visit to Plymouth colony:

Upon the hill they have a large square house with a flat roof, made of thick sawn planks stayed with oak beams, upon the top of which they have six cannon, which shoot iron balls of four and five pounds and command the surrounding country. The lower part they use for their church, where they preach on Sundays and the usual holidays. They assemble by beat of drum, each with his musket or firelock, in front of the captain’s door; they have their cloaks on, and place themselves in order, three abreast, and are led by a sergeant without beat of drum. Behind comes the governor in a long robe; beside him, on the right hand, comes the preacher with his cloak on, and on the left hand the captain with his side-arms and cloak on, and with a small cane in his hand; and so they march in good order, and each sets his arms down near him. Thus they are constantly on their guard, night and day.

The practice of carrying firearms to church thus goes back to the days of the Pilgrims, who thought it necessary to keep and bear arms to ensure their safety before, during, and after church services.

If the Pilgrims brought their muskets to church today, they would face a new threat – not from Native Americans, Frenchmen, Spaniards, or wild beasts, but from gun control advocates.

The State of New York recently enacted the 2022 Control Carry Improvement Act (CCIA) which, among other provisions, prohibits firearm possession within a church or, in some instances, within a parsonage. The CCIA was birthed after the Supreme Court struck down a similar New York gun control law in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen (2022), causing the governor to demand new legislation every bit as unconstitutional as the earlier law.

As senior counsel for the Foundation for Moral Law, I have filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court supporting those challenging this law. We note the obvious violation of the Second Amendment, but our brief focuses on another issue: the CCIA’s violation of the Establishment and the Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment.

The Establishment Clause prohibits the federal government (and, according to a series of court decisions, state and local governments as well) from establishing an official state church and entangling itself with church matters. The Free Exercise Clause protects the right of churches and individuals to attend the church of their choice and worship as led by God according to conscience and conviction.

The CCIA violates the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause by entangling the State of New York in church matters, dictating to churches what their policy toward firearms must be. This is an internal policy of the church, and the Establishment Clause reserves to churches the responsibility and right to make those decisions.

In several recent decisions, the Supreme Court has instructed that Establishment Clause claims must be reviewed on the basis of the Founders’ original understanding.

The Founders viewed Church and State as separate institutions with separate jurisdictions. When Jefferson spoke of a “wall of separation between church and state,” he meant a jurisdictional separation. The Founders inherited this jurisdictional understanding of Church and State from a lineage as long as the institutions themselves — from ancient times through the medieval period and beyond the Reformation.

The Framers did not view Church and State simply as man-made institutions. They did not accept Rousseau’s enlightenment notion that the State is above the Church and all other institutions. Instead, the Founders were well versed in ancient, medieval, and reformation theology, and, like the people of their time and those of preceding generations, they understood Church and State as divinely established institutions, each with distinctive authority and distinctive limitations.

This institutional separation goes back to the ancient Hebrews as seen in the Old Testament in which Israel’s kings were of the Tribe of Judah while Israel’s priests were of the Tribe of Levi; these were separate offices and separate jurisdictions, but both were subject to the will of God and the Law of God.

This institutional separation continued in the New Testament. When the Pharisees asked Jesus about paying taxes to the Roman government, He pointed to Caesar’s image on a coin and answered, “Render therefore to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and to God, the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21).

The Court has therefore recognized that this institutional separation prohibits the state from dictating whom the church may or may not call as a priest or pastor, when or how it may assemble for worship or conduct its worship, or other matters.

The decision regarding the best way to protect worshippers during a worship service inside the church is left to the churches by the Establishment Clause. If a church chooses to prohibit its attendees from bringing firearms into the church building, it may prohibit them. If a church chooses to allow its attendees to bring firearms into the church, it may allow them. This decision may involve biblical, theological, moral, and practical considerations, but the church and the church alone has the authority to make that decision. “When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace,” Luke 11:21 says, and thus a church may decide to hold the biblically and theologically correct position allowing or requiring firearms in church to ensure the safety of worshippers. Or the church may decide, based on practical considerations, that its worshippers are more likely to be safe if armed worshippers are present. The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause protect the church’s right to make that determination, and the right of church members to act accordingly.

The Court looks to history and the practice of the times to determine the meaning of the First and Second Amendments. Carrying firearms to worship services goes back at least to the Pilgrims in the 1620s. In an unusual move, we have included Boughton’s “Pilgrims Going to Church” in the Foundation’s amicus brief to the Supreme Court. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Colonel Eidsmoe is Senior Counsel for the Foundation for Moral Law ( and Professor of Constitutional Law for the Oak Brook College of Law & Government Policy ( He may be contacted for speaking engagements at

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