Across the United States, houses of worship and other religious institutions face an alarming level of violence. As we continue to mourn the lives lost in mass shootings at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Chabad of Poway, and others, we know these incidents are part of a broad pattern of religious bigotry targeting multiple faith traditions. Religious institutions must be able to access the necessary resources to ensure their institutions remain safe and welcoming to all.
On April 5, 2022, the Senate passed the Pray Safe Act. We now urge the House of Representatives to introduce and support the bipartisan Pray Safe Act as well, to establish a federal clearinghouse through which faith-based organizations and houses of worship can access safety resources.
In recent years, faith communities across the United States have experienced an alarming level of religious bigotry, including violence targeting houses of worship. From 2009 to 2019, the Department of Homeland Security identified 37 incidents of targeted violence at houses of worship – including arsons, bombings, cyberattacks, shootings, stabbings, and vehicular assaults – with a discernable increase after 2015. According to the most recent FBI Hate Crime Statistics, religion-based hate crimes comprised the second-largest category of hate crimes in 2019, representing more than 20 percent of reported incidents. The Anti-Defamation League 2020 Audit of Antisemitic Incidents also reveals that 2020 had the third-highest number of antisemitic incidents since the ADL began tracking such data in 1979.
As these incidents intensify, many houses of worship and religious institutions are assessing and revising their security infrastructure and procedures. These safety improvements are a painful yet necessary reality for houses of worship rooted in a desire to be places of welcome. Congregations and religious communities need more resources and guidance to ensure their communities are safe for all worshippers.
Introduced by Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), the bipartisan Pray Safe Act (S.2123) would direct the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Department of Justice, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and other federal agencies to a federal clearinghouse through which faith-based organizations and houses of worship can access information on safety and security best practices, federal grant programs, and training opportunities. This bill will help ensure that religious communities have the training and financial resources to improve security and keep worshippers safe. The Pray Safe Act was introduced in the Senate in June 2021 and passed by the Senate by unanimous consent in April 2022, but has not been introduced in the House of Representatives.
As congregations implement safety measures, they must be mindful of the diverse identities of people within the community and consider security measures that convey justice and safety for all. While some community members are comforted by law enforcement presence, others (including Jews of Color, LGBTQ+ Jews, and Jews with disabilities) may feel threatened, or in fact be made less safe, by police presence. For more information, see this blog post on creating an inclusive security plan and this collection of URJ security resources.
Guided by Jewish people’s historic experiences of suffering persecution as a religious minority, the Reform Movement has long been committed to protecting religious pluralism and freedom of worship for all faiths. Jewish tradition also emphasizes the sanctity and eternal value of human life, compelling us to ensure that all people can worship without fear of violence. The Talmud teaches, “One who takes a life, it is though they have destroyed the universe. And one who saves a life, it is as though they have saved the universe” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). Amidst rising antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, xenophobia, and other forms of religious bigotry, we must work to ensure that people of all faiths can pray safely.
For More Information
You can email your elected officials through our form or call the Capitol Switchboard at 202.224.3121 and ask to speak directly with their offices. For more information on this issue, visit the RAC’s pages on antisemitism and hate crimes and separation of church and state or contact Senior Legislative Assistant Jacob Greenblatt or Legislative Assistant Shayna Han.