Sens. Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) introduced a bipartisan bill this week intended to increase protections for places of worship, which have increasingly become the targets of extremist violence in recent months.
The Faith Based Community Center Protection Act, introduced on Thursday, aims to provide $75 million worth of additional grants to local and state law enforcement to further protect mosques, synagogues, churches, and other houses of worship through enhanced security measures. The bill would also double the federal penalty for making fake bomb threats to 10 years.
Over the past year there has been a grim uptick in extremist attacks on religious establishments. Last November, a gunman allegedly radicalized by fringe, far-right sections of the internet attacked the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing 11. In April, three historically black churches in Louisiana were set on fire in what police described as a racially motivated hate crime.
More recently, on Saturday, an alleged self-radicalized far-right extremist attacked the Chabad of Poway synagogue in San Diego, killing one and injuring three.
Outside the United States, in Christchurch, New Zealand, a gunman attacked two mosques, leaving 50 people dead. That attack spawned another in Sri Lanka, where 253 people were killed during Easter services at three Christian churches and at three luxury hotels, following a series of coordinated explosions.
Introducing his bill this week, Heinrich attributed at least part of the rise in violence to “political rhetoric that condones violence and intolerance.”
“Words matter […],” Heinrich said in a statement. “In this country we celebrate, not discourage, religious diversity. This bill would ensure that houses of worship and faith-based community centers across America can be safeguarded, while federal agencies hold those that instigate hatred, intolerance, and violence accountable.”
McSally added that the legislation would make federal resources available to houses of worship “to protect them from hate and violence and make those who target faith-based entities answer to the federal government.”
“No American should ever live in fear of worshiping and practicing their faith,” she said. “America will not tolerate attacks on our freedom of religion.”
McSally and Heinrich are two of 31 lawmakers who signed an open letter to Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Jon Tester (D-MT) — the chairwoman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security — asking for an additional $75 million to be tacked on to Homeland Security’s budget, in order to better guard places of worship against potential attacks.
“These funds are especially important considering the February 2019 FBI, DHS and NCTC Joint Intelligence Bulletin (JIB), which found that domestic extremists; perpetrators of hate crimes; homegrown violent extremists; and foreign terrorist organizations will continue to pose a lethal threat to faith-based communities,” the letter read. “[This is] particularly against perceived soft targets such as religious and cultural facilities.”
2020 candidates Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) also signed the letter.
The federal government’s response to the rising threat of domestic — and more specifically far-right — extremism has been sharply criticized. In April, it was revealed that DHS had shuttered a unit designed specifically to deal with domestic terrorism and share intelligence with local law enforcement.
More broadly, there are concerns that domestic extremists are not being treated with the same intensity as foreign terror organizations. In February, authorities arrested Christopher Hasson, a Coast Guard lieutenant who had stockpiled weapons and had allegedly compiled a hit-list of prominent Democrats and journalists to target. Despite being initially described by prosecutors as a “domestic terrorist,” Hasson has yet to face any charges related to domestic terrorism.