The Department of Homeland Security is looking to ramp up protections for faith-based organizations and make houses of worship across the U.S. safer -- after a string of attacks of synagogues, churches and other places of worship in 2019.
“Houses of worship and faith-based organizations dedicate resources to local communities and often serve as social and moral beacons people rely on in times of both joy and need,” Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf said in a memo to DHS officials dated Thursday and obtained by Fox News.
“The right to practice religion free of interference or fear is one of our nation’s most fundamental and indelible rights. As such, the targeting of houses of worship by violent extremists of any ideology is particularly abhorrent and must be prevented,” he said.
Wolf attached the memo to a report by the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC) on how violence against faith-based communities could be prevented. In May, then-DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan tasked the Council with setting up a subcommittee to review the agency’s role in preventing attacks. That request came after a series of attacks on synagogues, temples, churches and mosques, the department memo says.
The subcommittee finalized its report last month, just days before an attack on a rabbi's home in New York where five people were stabbed, and a church shooting in Texas where two people were killed before the gunman was shot dead by an armed congregant. The report does not discuss specific threats, but instead outlines methods related to preparedness, communication, co-operation and funding for how the DHS can work better to mitigate attacks.
"It is every government's duty to secure conditions of peace, justice, and liberty in which people of faith may exercise their religious freedoms without oppression and fear. We call upon our leaders to guarantee freedom of thought and consicence while at the same time uphold the freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights and U.S. Constitution to practice and propagate religion," the report says.
The report notes that HSAC was given similar tasks by the DHS during the Obama administration in 2012 and 2014, but says “there is no evidence any of the recommendations were acted on.” But in his memo, Wolf directs DHS heads to review the recommendations and outline what actions will be taken on them within just 14 days.
Those recommendations include designating a position at the assistant secretary level or higher to serve as a director to oversee DHS’s faith-based programs and represent the department at the interagency level. This would give a central point of contact for issues related to faith-based organization security. It also recommends the forming of an interagency working group dedicated to securing places of worship. Such a group would be convened at the National Security Council and would be part of an effort to help solve a perceived lack of coordination in the government on the issue.
“The absence of coordination within DHS is replicated throughout the federal government and has endangered confusion not just within the faith-based communities but also within the government agencies themselves,” the report says.
Other recommendations include adopting a “package approach” to training faith-based organizations, investing in a “two-way information sharing portal” for faith-based organization, providing more funding for local law enforcement to increase outreach to FBOs, and for Congress to work with DHS and the Department of Justice to define the domestic terror threat in statute.
It also recommends that DHS seek more funding from Congress to provide increased security grant money for those groups, and establish an office dedicated to helping applicants navigate the grant process. It also calls on DHS to enhance the role of Protective Security Advisors, experts in protecting infrastructure and mitigating vulnerabilities, possibly with more funding from Congress to hire, train and increase the numbers of such advisors.
The report also calls for more support and training for Fusion Centers -- state-operations centers designed to share real-time threat information with law enforcement at the federal level. It notes that currently, many faith communities view the centers with suspicion.
DHS spokeswoman Heather Swift told Fox News that the department has worked “aggressively and expeditiously to address the threat of violence against faith-based organizations.”
She noted that before becoming acting secretary last year, Wolf was head of the DHS Office of Policy, where he met with the subcommittee forming the report twice. He also led the office when it wrote the Countering Domestic Terrorism and Targeted Violence Strategy -- which includes ways to counter violence against faith-based organizations.