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Protect America’s houses of worship in year-end appropriations package

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Three years ago this month, 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, were shot to death as they gathered for Sunday services. Less than a year later, a gunman shouting “Jews must die” entered Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on the Jewish Sabbath, killing 11 worshippers. In 2012, a shooting at a suburban Wisconsin Sikh temple left seven dead. This month, the leader of an anti-government group went on trial for bombing a mosque in suburban Minneapolis.

From small towns to major cities across the United States, perpetrators have carried out at least 14 attacks on houses of worship across the United States in the last five years, killing more than 60 people.

A report issued last week by the Federal Bureau of Investigation demonstrates that such attacks are on the rise, and that no faith community is immune.

The FBI’s 2019 Hate Crimes Statistics Report documented 1,521 incidents of anti-religious hate crimes; of those, 62 percent targeted American Jews; almost 13 percent were perpetrated against those identifying as Christians; 12 percent were committed against Muslims; and almost four percent were anti-Sikh or Hindu. Overall, the number of religious-bias incidents rose from 1,419 in 2018 to 1,521 in 2019 — a seven percent increase. And because hate-crime reporting isn’t mandatory, the number of religiously biased attacks is surely greater than the report shows.

Religious leaders of all stripes are rightly alarmed by these trends. While the unfortunate history in the Jewish community has long made security a significant concern, other faith communities that once believed their congregations were immune to such terror have begun to take greater precautions to protect their flocks. Indeed, growing numbers of churches and synagogues conduct active-shooter drills and security trainings and have created volunteer security teams.

But even as preparedness has grown, the largest obstacle that stands between most houses of worship and increased security is funding. The United States is home to almost 400,000 churches, synagogues and mosques, many of them already struggling to afford basic expenditures such as clergy and utilities. Paying for large-ticket items such as shatterproof windows, force-resistant doors, surveillance systems and protective fencing — items that can each easily run into tens of thousands of dollars — isn’t typically a realistic option. The same is true for hiring security guards — another expense many houses of worship hadn’t contemplated before attacks began multiplying.

As congressional leaders work to finalize and pass a year-end appropriations package, it is very important that they include in it robust funding to keep all the people in our pews safe. This can be done by dramatically increasing the funding level of the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP).

Administered by the Department of Homeland Security, the bipartisan legislation that created the NSGP was enacted in the wake of 9/11. The NSGP is the only federal tool of its kind, providing grants of up to $100,000 apiece to synagogues, churches, mosques, parochial day schools and a wide swath of other nonprofits at risk of terror attacks. The monies may be used for security equipment, staff and volunteer training and contracted security personnel.

To date, the program has provided $419 million in grants to thousands of recipients seeking to enhance the security of their buildings. However, Congress’s allocations for the program have fluctuated vastly from year to year, and the growing need has outpaced available funding. In fiscal year 2019, for example, there were 2,039 applications submitted requesting a total of $169 million; funding for that year, however, was capped at $60 million. With the increase in attacks, my organization and a broad coalition of interfaith partners have requested increasing the 2020 allocation — $90 million — to $360 million for 2021.

Several lawmakers, led by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), have expressed support for this essential increase and, earlier this year, the House of Representatives included this funding increase in the DHS appropriations bill it passed.

Every American of every faith has the right to worship as they please. But this freedom to worship is hollow if it is not accompanied by a freedom from fear. As Congress concludes its business this year, it must provide the resources to keep America’s houses of worship and other faith-based nonprofits safe and secure.

Nathan Diament is executive director for public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and serves on the Department of Homeland Security’s Subcommittee for the Prevention of Targeted Violence Against Faith-Based Communities.

Tags Chuck Schumer Nita Lowey

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