A member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Franklin is prohibited from bringing his hunting knife to church after another member saw him with the blade at a Sunday service and got worried.
The knife carrier, Charles Rowe, said there is no reason to be alarmed by his utensil. He simply wants to wear his knife to church because, “It’s part of me and part of who I am.”
But even in Appalachia, where mountain men once thrived, Dr. Bill David, the complainant, said knives still shouldn’t be allowed in church.
“I’m opposed to bringing weapons to church,” David told The Smoky Mountain News from his home in Athens, Ga. “I didn’t confront him personally. He was sitting in front of me. I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want him stabbing at me with that knife. He may get mad at someone. It should never be permitted.”
Knives aren’t allowed in the post office either, David noted.
The debate has resulted in the church adopting a no weapons policy and sparked a vigorous discussion over an individual’s rights.
David said he has no reason to believe that Rowe would do anything violent with the knife.
“I don’t know him personally,” said David, 84.
Rowe said he doesn’t even know who made the complaint.
Church President Virginia Wilson said she believes the knife scared David because his great grandchildren were threatened with a knife at a school in Athens.
David said he would have opposed the knife at church anyway.
Rowe said he thinks David overreacted to his knife. The knife is a tool, not a weapon, said Rowe.
“I think our society has become too paranoid,” Rowe told The Smoky Mountain News in an interview at his house on Saturday (Feb. 28). “I wear it everywhere.”
‘The knife is part of me’
Wearing a knife symbolizes a “lifestyle I try to aspire to — living off the land like our forefathers did,” said Rowe. “It’s the way I grew up.”
Carrying a knife also goes back to his Celtic heritage, he said.
David balked at Rowe’s saying the knife is part of his heritage: “I don’t care what he says he is.”
Rowe added that he values self-sufficiency and that he was part of the “back to the land movement” in the 1960s.
His knife is not a bowie knife or sword, but just a simple hunting knife. He doesn’t conceal it but carries it on his hip. There is no state law that says he can’t carry his knife, he said.
Rowe said he joined the Universalist church because of its “openness and willingness to celebrate diversity.” Not allowing him to carry his knife contradicts what the church stands for, he said.
The Unitarian Church welcomes people of all faiths — Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, agnostics, atheists and Jews.
Rowe is a pagan and has been attending the Franklin Unitarian church for about four years. Prior to that he attended the Unitarian church in Richmond, Va., since the early 1990s, he said.
He said he wore the knife to the Unitarian church in Franklin since he started attending. The religion’s principles include the inherent worth and dignity of every person and a free search for truth.
A letter to the congregation
Rowe said his main problem with the ordeal has been the way the church handled it. He said he wanted to express his views to the entire congregation, but he felt church officials censored him.
“I wasn’t given a chance to discuss it rationally,” he said.
Rowe also said he wasn’t give a chance to meet with the person who complained. Rowe sent an e-mail to a church official explaining his side and asked that it be forwarded to the entire congregation, but it wasn’t.
“This is just one example of why we need open conversation within this congregation,” said Rowe.
Eventually he did get some of the church members’ e-mail addresses through an e-mail sent to him. He composed a long letter stating his position and sent it out.
In the letter he wrote, “Our society was founded and nurtured on the ideals of rugged individualism and independence.”
It is wrong for the church to prohibit him from wearing his knife just because one person was scared by it, said Rowe.
“We all too often succumb to the tyranny of the least stable among us, giving up our precious freedoms to appease those who suffer from irrational fears and paranoia so as not to offend anyone,” he wrote.
“Unitarians try to be very politically correct and don’t want to offend anyone,” Rowe said.
He said it is wrong for the church to prejudge people who carry knives: “It is this sort of prejudice that I thought our church was supposed to be working against,” he wrote.
Rowe posted his letter on the bulletin board, but Wilson didn’t allow it to stay up. She wanted to handle the issue at the board level rather than it getting out to the congregation and “alarming” members.
Church board member Joan Hawthorne said Rowe could have asked to be put on the board’s agenda or spoken during a Sunday service.
No weapons policy adopted
A double homicide at a Universalist church in Knoxville in July was brought up when Rowe was told he couldn’t bring his knife to church anymore. But Rowe didn’t think that was fair.
“It doesn’t relate because the person (killer) wasn’t a member, and I didn’t have a gun,” said Rowe.
The shooting in Knoxville, which also injured six, is “an example” of why David says he’s opposed to Rowe bringing a knife to church. David said he is very much in favor of the weapons policy.
“That isn’t a place to hunt,” said David. “I’ve been a minister for 57 years and never been in a church with weapons in it before.”
Church board member Hawthorne said ever since the shooting that the church considered adopting a weapons policy, but Rowe’s knife was the “catalyst” to get the rule drafted. She noted that other places, such as airplanes, prohibit carrying knives.
Rowe is adamant about his right to wear his knife to church and will continue to argue the point “infinitum,” said Hawthorne.
The weapons policy now hangs in the entryway to the church and in the fellowship hall and states no weapons may be brought to the church. Wilson said Rowe is welcome back at church “without his knife.”
Hawthorne said she was also bothered by the knife.
“When he comes in with a knife it doesn’t feel like a safe place,” she said.
Rowe shouldn’t take it personally that he can’t wear his knife to church, said member Linda Winn.
“I don’t think you need a knife at church,” Winn said. “We’re a peaceful group of people.”
Even if it means he can’t wear his knife, he will probably go back to the church, Rowe said. He could simply wear an empty knife sheath at church, he said.
But he said he hates to give in. “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” he wrote in his letter.
No reason to fear him
Rowe’s wife, Debbie, said there is no reason church members should fear her husband, who she met online.
“I mean, half the kids who attend the church call him grandpa,” she stated as their granddaughter, Heaven, ran around the house.
It is “unfair and unjust” that he cannot wear his knife to church, Debbie said.
The first time she met him in person he was wearing it while visiting her at the Intensive Care Unit at Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva, she said. She was in the hospital for an appendectomy.
“I see it as an extension of him,” Debbie said. “I’m just as likely to reach for the knife as a tool as he is.”
When he went to the hospital wearing the knife, he walked past security guards and nurses and “no one flinched,” Debbie said.
Rowe added that when he attended a Macon County commissioners meeting wearing the knife all that Sheriff Robbie Holland said was “nice knife.”
Rowe is unemployed living on disability, he said. He said his disability is “fatigue.”
He said he has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, religion and social services from Virginia Commonwealth University.