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 Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Chabad of Poway, Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, 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.
Faith communities across the United States are experiencing 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 2022 FBI Hate Crime Statistics, religion-based hate crimes comprised the second-largest category of hate crime incidents, representing more than 17 percent of reported incidents.
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 worshipers.
The bipartisan Pray Safe Act (S. 1886 / H.R. 7296) 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 establish 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 worshipers safe. The Pray Safe Act was reintroduced in June 2023 in the Senate and introduced for the first time in the House in February 2024.
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 historical 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 as though one has 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.
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For more information on this issue, contact Eisendrath Legislative Assistant CJ Wechsler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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