Falls pastor may be headed to U.S. Supreme Court over New York gun law

Mar. 18—It's a case that has already made its way to the United States Supreme Court.

And it's likely to return there.

But first, Niagara Falls pastor Jimmie Hardaway Jr.'s constitutional challenge to New York's Concealed Carry Improvement Act (CCIA) faces a Monday morning hearing before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The New York City-based court is widely considered one of the most influential appeals courts in the nation.

Hardaway, of Trinity Baptist Church, and Rev. Larry Boyd, pastor of Open Praise Full Gospel Baptist Church in Buffalo, challenged the constitutionality of the CCIA, along with two national pro-gun groups, Las Vegas-based Firearms Policy Coalition and Bellevue, Washington-based Second Amendment Foundation in a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York. The suit sought to block a provision of the CCIA that bars individuals from bringing firearms into places of worship.

Boyd and Hardaway also sought to have the CCIA struck down in its entirety as unconstitutional.

Hardaway and Boyd have argued in the case that they would suffer irreparable harm, and that their Second Amendment rights would be violated, if the places of worship restriction was not blocked. In an affidavit accompanying the original lawsuit, Hardaway acknowledges that he is a member of the two pro-gun groups involved in the case and that he is licensed to carry a handgun in New York.

"Prior to the enactment and enforcement of the Place of Worship Ban, I would consistently carry a firearm on Trinity Baptist Church's premises," Hardaway said in the affidavit. "I would intend to keep carrying for self-defense and to keep the peace at Trinity Baptist Church."

U.S. District Court Judge John L. Sinatra Jr. conducted an expedited hearing on Hardaway and Boyd's lawsuit and, just hours after oral arguments in the case, issued a 40-page decision and order that granted a temporary restraining order (TRO) blocking the enforcement of the places of worship restriction.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, whose office defended the CCIA, had sought to remove Sinatra, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, charging that Hardaway and Boyd had engaged in "judge shopping" by having the case directed to Sinatra.

Two weeks later, in a decision and order that followed almost word-for-word and page-for-page his decision on the TRO, Sinatra granted the pastors a preliminary injunction that blocked the enforcement of the places of worship restriction. Weeks later, Sinatra ruled the entire CCIA was unconstitutional.

James appealed Sinatra's decisions to the Second Circuit and asked the appeals court to block his rulings while they considered them. The attorney general asked the appeals court to overturn, "in each and every aspect," Sinatra's rulings.

The Second Circuit judges issued a stay on Sinatra's decisions, which effectively reinstated the CCIA and the places of worship restriction.

Hardaway and Boyd asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and overturn the stay. They argued that their rights under the Second Amendment had been "indefinitely suspend(ed)."

"Applicants, along with countless others like them, are being irreparably harmed each day this patently unconstitutional law remains in place, eviscerating the right of ordinary, law-abiding New Yorkers to carry firearms in public for self-defense," Hardaway and Boyd's lawyers told the high court. "Additionally, this case presents issues of national importance with respect to states that enact laws in explicit defiance of this court's decisions."

In January, the court, without any noted dissents, allowed the stay to remain in place while the Second Circuit proceedings continued.

The appeals court panel will hear up to 20 minutes, 10 minutes for each side, of arguments in the case. The case has attracted friend of the court briefs from both pro-gun control and pro-gun rights groups, as well as the attorneys general from a dozen states opposed to the New York law.

In his decision and order, Sinatra wrote that the State of New York had responded to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen by enacting "even more restrictive legislation" than what the high court had declared unconstitutional.

"The court reiterates that ample Supreme Court precedent addressing the individual's right to keep and bear arms — from Heller and McDonald to its June 2022 decision in Bruen — dictates that New York's new place of worship restriction is equally unconstitutional," Sinatra wrote.

During oral arguments in the case, Sinatra appeared dismissive and openly hostile to the arguments being made by lawyers for the state.

"In Bruen, the (Supreme Court) made the Second Amendment test crystal clear: regulation in this area is permissible only if the government demonstrates that the regulation is consistent with the Nation's historical tradition," Sinatra wrote in his decisions. "New York fails that test. The State's exclusion is, instead, inconsistent with the Nation's historical traditions."

Hardaway has maintained that his church has an "open-door policy" that carries risk over "who will walk in the door for services." The pastor also claims that the "horrific murders" of nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, has "stiffened (his) resolve to carry for self-defense and to keep the peace at Trinity Baptist stronger."