Following a string of mass shootings at churches, synagogues, and mosques in the past few years, should the government do more to beef up security at such locations?
26 attendees died in a 2017 mass shooting at a Texas church. 11 attendees died in a 2018 mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Nine parishioners died in a 2015 mass shooting at a South Carolina church. 51 people died in May’s mass shooting at a New Zealand mosque.
While federal facilities are extremely well-protected, so-called “soft targets” such as houses of worship are another story. Should the federal government be helping to protect more of those as well?
What the legislation does
New legislation would create a new program within the Department of Homeland Security to provide grants for security to nonprofit institutions, such as religious buildings.
However, the legislation would give the Secretary of Homeland Security the sole discretion to choose recipients among all nonprofit organizations. Because it’s so broadly written, this leaves open the possibility that the bill — which is described as being about protecting religious institutions — could actually be used to provide security for exactly the kinds of groups which have targeted them, such as white nationalists. For example, the white supremacist group National Policy Institute (NPI) was a non-profit at one time.
The legislation would appropriate $75 million to the cause for each of the next five years. The bill says the funds would be available for target hardening, security training and related activities such as cyber security resilience.
It was introduced in the House on May 2 as the Securing American Non-Profit Organizations Against Terrorism Act [H.R. 2476], by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS2), Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee.
It was introduced in the Senate two weeks later on May 16 as the similarly-named Protecting Faith-Based and Nonprofit Organizations From Terrorism Act [S. 1539], by Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).
What supporters say
Supporters argue the legislation would provide much-needed security and protection to locations which, it has become all too apparent, have in some cases become sitting ducks.
“Regrettably, the volume of homegrown violent extremist threats to houses of worship and other non-profits has grown significantly… This threat is not new and it is not limited to big cities,” House lead sponsor Rep. Thompson said in a press release. “My legislation, which passed today with bipartisan support, seeks to ensure that DHS continues to be a valuable partner to non-profits that are at risk of a terrorist attack.”
“As places of public gathering without extensive security protection, churches and other houses of worship are considered soft targets, much like shopping malls, restaurants, and theaters,” Rep. Thompson continued. “My bill… [would] help protect at-risk institutions and it sends a message of support to non-profit organizations across the country that homegrown extremists and others with violent ideologies seek to attack.”
GovTrack Insider was unable to locate any explicit statements of opposition.
Odds of passage
The House version has attracted 104 bipartisan cosponsors: 86 Democrats and 18 Republicans. It was reported favorably by the House Homeland Security Committee on May 15 by unanimous consent, which potentially sends it to a vote in the whole House.
However, a previous version passed the House in January 2018 yet never received a Senate vote.
The Senate version has four cosponsors, all Democrats, although the lead sponsor is a Republican. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Kevin McAleenan, the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, while not explicitly supporting this legislation — since Cabinet secretaries usually refrain from taking such active political stances on bills before Congress — implied support for the cause.
“I am concerned about white supremacists, extremists and the growing attacks, especially, that we’ve seen on houses of worship,” he said in testimony at a committee hearing, adding that the department needs to “improve our prevention efforts in this regard.”