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Portman: Congress needs to help with security at houses of worship

Recently, I brought together a diverse group of Ohio faith leaders to discuss ways to better protect our houses of worship in the face of a troubling trend — rising numbers of hate-fueled attacks in our country and around the world.

Here in America, our Jewish neighbors often bear the worst of it. Five months ago, a shooting at a synagogue outside San Diego took the life of Lori Gilbert Kaye, who heroically sacrificed herself to save her rabbi. Six months prior to that, the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh claimed 11 lives, the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in U.S. history. Last week, in Cleveland, a federal grand jury indicted a suburban Youngstown man for allegedly threatening the Jewish Community Center of Youngstown. Earlier this month, a synagogue was burned to the ground in Duluth, Minnesota, and, on Sept. 13, a swastika was found sprayed on a wall at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Hate seldom stops at one religion or one country, however.

Hundreds of Christians in Sri Lanka were massacred on Easter Sunday this year. A shooting at two mosques in New Zealand killed dozens of Muslims. In 2012, a gunman killed six Sikh worshippers in Wisconsin, and earlier this year, a Hindu temple in Kentucky was vandalized.

We will also never forget the 2015 tragic killings of nine African-American parishioners at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

This violence is senseless and contrary to American values, and we must stand with these impacted communities. We also have a duty to remind our fellow citizens that we are all made in the image of God, and that the intolerance, hatred, and violence must stop.

But, sadly, if these trends are any indication, we must recognize that these attacks are likely to continue, and we should prepare accordingly.

In the days after the Pittsburgh synagogue attack, I went to the Jewish Community Center in Youngstown, only 60 miles away from Pittsburgh, to express my solidarity with the Jewish community. In conversations that day, I was encouraged to bring people together across Ohio to stand as one, and discuss how best to defend against attacks on religious institutions.

Earlier this month, I invited faith leaders from around the state and federal agents for a conference at the Jewish Community Center in Columbus. Members of Ohio’s Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh communities, Gov. Mike DeWine, and DHS and FBI officials came together for an important and informative conversation on how we can keep worshipers safe going forward.

What I said earlier in Youngstown, and what I reaffirmed at the Columbus conference, is that Congress can, and should, do more to provide synagogues, mosques, churches, and other faith-based organizations with the skills and resources to secure their facilities effectively.

This includes providing best security practices from around the country, training, and timely assessments of the vulnerabilities and threats, as well as resources to help religious institutions be prepared.

That’s why I’ve worked to establish and support DHS’ Nonprofit Security Grant Program. This grant program allows nonprofits, including synagogues and other faith-based organizations, to apply for funds they can use to secure their facilities.

Ohio received a total of $450,000 in fiscal year 2019 through the program — including the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, as well as synagogues in Dayton and Toledo — but I’m working to increase awareness and available funds so that more Ohio communities can access these resources.

As part of that effort, I’m working to authorize the program so it will be there into the future, and to increase its funding so that nonprofits outside of major urban areas can benefit more. My colleague, Sen. Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan, and I have introduced bipartisan legislation, the “Protecting Faith-Based and Nonprofit Organizations from Terrorism Act,” to provide more funding and training resources for vulnerable nonprofits and faith-based institutions.

The bill authorizes $75 million annually for the next five years — $50 million that can be used by nonprofits located within high-risk large urban areas, and the rest for nonprofits in other areas, including all of Ohio. That would be an increase of $15 million in available funding for nonprofits across our state.

While this bill awaits passage in the Senate, I’ll continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure that religious and other nonprofit institutions in Ohio and across our country are safe and welcoming spaces.

I pray we will see the day when such security grants are not necessary because we will abide by the admonition to love our neighbor as ourselves. In the meantime, let’s do all we can to give our religious communities the resources they need to be safe.

Portman is a resident of the Cincinnati area and Ohio’s junior senator. He provided this guest column as the first anniversary of the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 worshipers approaches. That anniversary will be observed Oct. 27.

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