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The American Independent

Houses of worship need more protection but obstacles remain

The process to apply for a federal security grant is burdensome for overworked clergy, and could slow enhanced protections for their congregants.

By Josh Axelrod - August 24, 2021
Tree of Life Jewish synagogue, religion

The only thing that stood between the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center and a knife-wielding attacker who stormed into the mosque in May was an off-duty security guard who happened to be in the building at the time.

The assailant had chased a woman as she entered the Seven Corners, Virginia, mosque and once inside, began swinging his knife at the unarmed, plainclothes guard.

Staff were eventually able to scare off the attacker, who had reportedly yelled about “my country” and threatened to “bring my soldiers,” according to the Daily Beast.

Imam Naeem Baig, the worship leader at Dar Al-Hijrah, gets goosebumps just thinking about how the incident could have played out differently and whether his mosque is prepared to handle another such incident.

“It worries me, it worries us as an organization,” Baig told The American Independent Foundation. “We do our best with whatever means we have to secure and protect our community, but it’s just not one place — there are synagogues, temples, Sikh temples, they all are facing these challenges.”

After the attack, Baig applied for security funding through the Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which is available to houses of worship for security upgrades like fencing, security guards, active shooter training, and more.

Baig and a member of the Dar Al-Hijrah community with prior grant-writing experience spent three months preparing the application, listing the ways upgrades could save lives in case of a future attack. Now, with that DHS funding, Dar Al-Hijrah is installing a fence around the center, a security booth at the main entrance, and additional parking lot lights.

But the process to secure grants is often challenging for overworked clergy, who don’t always have literacy with grant-writing or time to dedicate to a lengthy application process — that is, if they’ve even heard of the program to begin with.

“We are so consumed in our daily routine and daily programs, that we don’t have this luxury of time to go and seek what is out there,” Baig, who sits on various interfaith councils, said of his clergy colleagues.

The burden of knowing what’s available and how to navigate such an involved process cannot fall on houses of worship, said Ryan Greer, National Security Director for the Anti-Defamation League, especially as hate crimes against religious minorities spike.

“The resounding mood toward security funding is many of these organizations simply don’t know that there already is funding available,” Greer said.

Those with experience themselves agree that the current process is beyond burdensome.

On Aug. 5, the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin commemorated the ninth anniversary of the Oak Creek temple shooting, one of the deadliest hate crimes in U.S. history. Six worshipers were murdered in that attack, after a white supremacist stormed the Oak Creek-based gurdwara and opened fire.

That attack shook the broader Sikh American community, inspiring some to action to protect themselves against future violence. Gurmit Singh Kaleka, a nephew of one of the six victims, who himself missed the scene of the shooting by an hour, told the American Independent Foundation the attack was “an eye-opener.”

After the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights organization, approached Kaleka about the temple’s security needs moving forward, he decided to apply for funding to install armored windows, security doors, and a fence that would restrict entry to the gurdwara.

Kaleka said his advanced degree in business and familiarity with reports helped him navigate the grant-writing process, and suggested other clergy might have serious difficulty navigating things, especially if English isn’t their first language.

Senators are attempting to tackle these problems with the Pray Safe Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation that would establish a clearinghouse of resources for houses of worship to tap into.

The legislation, introduced in June by Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH), would create an information hub to “educate and publish online best practices and recommendations for safety and security,” as well as “provide information relating to Federal grant programs,” according to a draft of the bill.

The Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs sent the legislation to the Senate for consideration in July.

“…We must ensure that faith-based organizations and houses of worship have the resources, assistance, and training they need to secure their facilities in the face of unnecessary violence that has tragically become increasingly common,” Portman said in a statement to The American Independent Foundation.

Still, despite cheering on the legislation, advocates say even more needs to be done to help guide houses of worship through the onerous funding process.

Since the sudden violent flare up in Gaza this past May, the result of Israeli forces attempting to evict several Palestinian families from their homes and backlash from the militant group Hamas, American Jews have faced an increased threat of antisemitic assaults, harassment, and vandalism, as well as an uptick in antisemitic rhetoric across social media.

So pronounced was that increase that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights expressed its concern in July, with a statement detailing incidents such as swastikas scratched into synagogue doors or yarmulke-wearing Jews being threatened in the streets.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations found that anti-Muslim hate crimes also rose following the conflict, with a surge of anti-mosque incidents, physical assaults, Islamophobic statements from public officials, and bullying targeting Muslim students. Just last month, a man was arrested for a series of anti-Muslim hate crimes in Queens; according to prosecutors, he had accosted several Muslims over a span of five weeks, allegedly yelling Islamophobic statements at them, assaulting his victims, pulling a woman’s hijab off, and threatening a victim with a knife.

Sikhs, Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and atheists all endured at least 1,650 religiously prejudiced attacks in 2019, according to the most recent data available from the FBI.

Experts say the proposed legislation is necessary to confront those figures.

Grant programs are currently too dense and inaccessible, advocates say, forcing applicants to track down a 33-page document on FEMA’s website, which lays out the requirements.

“Many organizations, they’re busy running operations, they’re busy running their congregation, they’re busy running their small nonprofit, they don’t have time to scour the internet for the notice of funding opportunity, which is a relatively specific document buried in the FEMA website,” Greer said.

The remainder of the application process is no easier. Applications include questions such as, “Describe why the symbolic value of the site makes it a possible target of terrorism” and “explain the potential negative effects of a terrorist attack on the organization.”

After a threat assessment, houses of worship then need to personally obtain quotes from contractors and estimate all the costs involved for their requested upgrades.

“There really is a fairly high barrier to entry for getting a federal grant, just by virtue of how much paperwork is involved and how many technical terms are involved with that paperwork,” Greer added.

Then there’s a patchwork of deadlines to which applicants must adhere, all while obtaining different business identification documents and registering in various government portals to receive the funds.

Missing one deadline can throw off an entire application.

Following the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, America’s deadliest antisemitic attack, which claimed the lives of 11 congregants in 2018, Rabbi Benjamin Zober tried to apply for security funding for his Reno, Nevada synagogue.

But his 2019 grant application was denied after the synagogue missed a deadline.

His community was only able to secure a grant in the next application cycle after Zober related the issue to Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) during a meet and greet with local clergy. She provided a letter of reference and the synagogue was awarded $100,000 the next year.

“Being able to sit in the same room and speak directly to the senator was tremendously helpful,” Zober said.

Tegan Peterson, the Director of Operations for the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, was responsible for keeping up with due dates and registering her church and adjoining synagogue on the various government portals. She had the help of both church and synagogue staff and the Secure Community Network, a Jewish Federations of North America-sponsored nonprofit that conducted a threat assessment and advised the houses of worship on their application.

Without all hands on deck, Peterson said the funds may never have come.

“Because we had the team that we had and the cooperation we had — that was absolutely necessary for this to happen,” she told The American Independent Foundation. “This role at this church is very busy… and I cannot imagine having the time to do all of this.”

Security upgrades are changing the face of worship in America, as the threat to religious groups continues to balloon.

While the grants are especially necessary for religious minority groups, Pastor Michael Wilker of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington, D.C., said he realized in recent years that even congregations made up of mostly white Christians were under threat.

After the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, rioters trampled across church grounds to return to their hotels and Airbnbs. And because Wilker’s church partners with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a refugee resettlement agency, and has been used as a staging ground for DACA protests, it has a target on its back.

Still, congregants have at times had knee-jerk reactions as religious leaders move turn toward more hardened security measures in lieu of open-door-policies.

“When we said, ‘well, we’re going to start locking our doors,’ that was a shock to the system for a lot of people,” Zober said. “Some people were very angry that they couldn’t just come on in.”

“It isn’t as though we have a guard tower and sentries and triple ID checks and things like that in front of the building… but [it] was something very jarring and very upsetting for people” nonetheless, he added.

With the Pray Safe Act moving along to the Senate, that process could soon be simplified. And with any luck, overlapping due dates and stacks of paperwork will no longer stand between houses of worship and necessary security upgrades.

Once the security measures are installed, however, what’s left to be done? Clergy members say they still fear that toughening their defenses won’t prevent every attack, or worse — that they may just serve as a band-aid as systemic issues of bigotry go unchecked.

On Capitol Hill and the campaign trail, lawmakers and candidates have pushed discriminatory rhetoric — intentionally or otherwise — targeting vulnerable groups with antisemitic tropes, xenophobic and Islamophobic language, and arguing over which religious groups get to claim superiority.

Efforts to educate students on diversity, systemic bias, and forms of discrimination have been met with hostility from conservatives, who’ve banded together in recent months to outlaw the teaching of critical race theory in classrooms.

“These efforts of securing the place all are needed,” Baig said, “but at the same time, the bigger question is how do we address this issue of xenophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism?”

“What are we teaching in our schools, what are we preaching from our pulpits, what are we talking [about] in our media?” he asked. “All of that puts a responsibility on us as a nation.”

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

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