On November 15, 2018, less than a month after the mass murder of 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina held a public seminar on “Protecting Houses of Worship.”
Sadly, the seminar was not scheduled in response to this most recent attack on a house of worship. It was actually stimulated by the massacre at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Spring, Texas, whose first anniversary just passed. And it was the second such seminar organized by U.S. Attorney Robert J. Higdon, Jr. The first seminar was held in January 2018 in Cary and attracted some 400 attendees. This second session held in Greenville had around 100 attendees, mostly from Christian Churches, though there were two members of a local synagogue and two members of a local mosque in attendance.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Higdon quoted James Madison to highlight the significance of violence against houses of worship beyond the lives lost: it constitutes a threat to religious freedom.
He then listed some particular targets to highlight the scope of the problem:
- 2008: Unitarian Universalist church in Tennessee
- 2012: Sikh Temple in Wisconsin
- 2015: African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina
- 2016: Islamic Center in Florida
- 2017: Baptist Church in Texas
- 2018: Synagogue in Pennsylvania
No religious tradition or congregation is immune to the threat of violence.
“We have the right to worship in peace,” Higdon declared. The key to securing that peace, however, is not immediately evident.
Religious congregations are “uniquely vulnerable” because they must strike a balance between being welcoming and insuring the sanctity of their worship space. Houses of worship also typically have limited resources for private security (the average congregation in the United States has fewer than 100 regular members). The motivations for violence can be unpredictable – though racial or religious hatred and domestic violence spillovers are common – at the same time that worship services are very predictable in time, place, and purpose.
The purpose of the U.S. Attorney’s seminar was to provide some best practices and resources as well as to begin to facilitate networks among people of faith to develop these practices and resources further.
The seminar was originally scheduled for mid-October, before the Tree of Life Synagogue murders, but was rescheduled due to Hurricane Matthew. The agenda was modified to add Rabbi Harley Karz-Wagman of Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville to the agenda. His comments began with his grim reality: “I’m scared.” He asked those gathered, “How do we deal with growing hatred?” Then answered his own question, “With love.”
Nothing that followed, however, echoed Rabbi Karz-Wagman’s theme. Rather, the first session included a deputy sheriff and a police sergeant discussing “Law Enforcement Support to Protecting Houses of Worship,” and the second session – “Local Area Houses of Worship Discuss Security” – emphasized responses to security threats other than love.
Attendees at the seminar were also provided several handouts highlighting some of the many governmental resources available to help houses of worship ensure greater security. These included:
- a US Department of Homeland Security, Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative (NSI) Safety for Faith-Based Events and Houses of Worship NSI Awareness Flier
- a DHS Office of Infrastructure Protection (IP) Protective Security Advisors Program flier
- a flier on a Department of Justice Community Relations Service in-person facilitated program on Protecting Places of Worship Through Education and Dialogue
- materials from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency/Homeland Security Praise & Preparedness program
And these represent just some of the many government and non-governmental resources available to houses of worship seeking to develop better safety and security measures. See my Protecting Houses of Worship, Part 1: Training Organizations, Groups, and Individuals and Protecting Houses of Worship, Part 2: Other Resources.