Column: Strengthening security for places of worship

AMANDA SABGA/Staff file photoSen. Maggie Hassan

No one should fear for their life when they enter a house of worship to reflect and pray. But in New Hampshire and across the country, religious institutions are facing growing threats.

Domestic terrorists have attacked houses of worship including an Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a Charleston, South Carolina, church, and a Pittsburgh synagogue. And others, including in the Granite State, receive frequent threats.

Recently I met with religious leaders and public safety officials at Temple Adath Yeshurun in Manchester, who detailed some of the threats that they and their congregations have received.

One rabbi noted that they only open the doors to the temple shortly before services begin, and lock the doors shortly after the start of services. As she leads her congregation during those minutes when the doors are open, she says she wonders, “Is this the night we die?”

It is more important than ever that community organizations, such as houses of worship, have the resources that they need to address threats and mitigate the impact of attacks. We must also ensure that local and state law enforcement have robust infrastructure to prevent and respond to attacks.

Toward that end, I am encouraged that New Hampshire is receiving more than $4 million in federal grant funding for terrorism prevention efforts.

This funding will help ensure that state and local law enforcement have the training necessary to help spot pre-attack warning signs, as well as the plans, equipment, and response capabilities to help save lives if an attack occurred.

In addition, our state is receiving a $150,000 federal grant specifically for seven New Hampshire houses of worship, including the Etz Hayim synagogue in Derry, to help strengthen their buildings’ physical security.

As a member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee I will continue to fight for resources to protect non-profit organizations and communities all across our state.

As part of those efforts, I cosponsored a bipartisan bill to increase funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program that is helping support security upgrades at houses of worship, and also permanently authorize this grant program in law. This bipartisan bill, which has passed the Homeland Security Committee, would also ensure that states like New Hampshire – that don’t have large population centers – are eligible for at least one third of the total funding.

I will also continue to push the Department of Homeland Security and the rest of the federal government to improve and strengthen their abilities to combat threats of violence from domestic terrorists.

In May, I sent a letter along with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to the Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan expressing concern over the rise in domestic terrorism in the United States, and requesting information about what steps the department has taken to mitigate and prevent this threat to protect the safety and security of Americans.

The first responsibility of our government is ensuring that people are safe, secure, and free — and that, of course, includes being able to worship without fear of violence.

Our country is experiencing a terrible resurgence of hateful rhetoric and violent extremism, as well as more and more frequent mass shootings. We need action, first and foremost, to keep Americans of all backgrounds safe, including sensible measures to keep weapons out of the wrong hands and a comprehensive national strategy to combat domestic terrorism.

But we also need to address the root causes of these threats and violence. We need to meet this moment by standing together united – as Americans have in both good times and in bad – and rejecting hatred and intolerance.

Maggie Hassan represents the state of New Hampshire in the U.S. Senate.

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