The Pray Safe Act, explained

The bipartisan legislation would make it easier for houses of worship to address security concerns

With the vaccination rate on the rise, churches across the country are reopening their doors. As they do, they’re grappling with countless safety concerns, including some that have nothing to do with COVID-19.

Hundreds of houses of worship in recent years have faced violent attacks, from shootings, to bomb threats, to intentional fires. Individual people of faith have also been targeted at alarming rates. Many Americans now feel unsafe walking down the street in religious garb.

Some policymakers believe there’s more the government can do to prevent anti-religious violence. They’re championing a bipartisan bill that would make it easier for faith leaders to access safety-related funding and advice.

“The threats and senseless attacks on faith-based organizations and houses of worship we’re seeing across our country, in my opinion, are attacks on all of our values,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who is sponsoring the legislation, called the Pray Safe Act, during a Senate committee hearing on it this week.

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If passed in its current form, the Pray Safe Act would create a federal clearinghouse, or information hub, that collects and distributes recommendations on violence prevention, in addition to helping faith leaders participate in safety-related grant programs.

The hub would be created with help from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and other agencies.

“For me this is more important than the money, to let them know what the best practices are and help them,” Portman said this week.

Leaders from a variety of faith groups have expressed support for the bill.

“It is sad that we need this kind of legislation — but we do — and we call upon Congress to pass it right away,” said Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, which offered input on the bill that is co-sponsored by Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council described the Pray Safe Act as a “meaningful step towards combatting domestic terrorism” in a statement released Friday.

“Houses of worship lack easy access to security information as well as adequate funding to update their on-site security measures. Solving the lack of funding as well as the lack of knowledge will greatly increase preparedness and, put simply, will save lives,” the group said.

Church and community members, including Matt Pacholczyk, left, and his wife, Faith Pacholczyk, stand outside of West Freeway Church of Christ for a candlelight vigil on Monday, Dec. 30, 2019, in White Settlement, Texas. A gunman shot and killed two people before an armed security officer returned fire, killing him during a service at the church on Sunday. | Tom Fox, Dallas Morning News

Amir Izhar, chairman of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, said the bill shows the power of bipartisan cooperation “to keep diverse faith communities safe.”

The bill stems from the recognition that America’s guarantee of religious freedom rings hollow unless people feel safe at their place of worship, Diament said.

“Freedom of worship cannot be enjoyed without freedom from fear,” he said.

Melissa Rogers, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said something similar earlier this year when asked to describe the biggest threat to religious liberty in America today. She recalled meeting with people of faith who felt unsafe walking outside and highlighted the Biden administration’s efforts to expand nonprofit security grants.

“I am convinced that if every fair-minded American could sit and listen to someone who feels they cannot practice their faith without fear then they would be on fire to change this,” she said during an April 22 panel hosted by Religion News Association.

On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee voted to advance the Pray Safe Act to the full Senate.