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Coalition says security grant program for houses of worship needs more funding

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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee for Religious Liberty joined other faith groups Oct. 5 in urging Congress to allocate more funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which assists houses of worship and other nonprofit organizations.

The program gives grants to help these entities enhance security through improvements to infrastructure, funding for emergency planning and training, upgrades of security systems and some renovation projects.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has administered the Nonprofit Security Grant Program since its creation by Congress in 2005. The program initially received $25 million in funding, and Congress provided $90 million for the program in fiscal year 2020.

A wave of attacks on Catholic churches and statues that has taken place around the country over the past several months has drawn heightened attention to the grant program and the need for more security. Mosques and synagogues also have been vandalized as have other houses of worship.

"Each of our communities believes that respect for human dignity requires respect for religious liberty," the USCCB religious liberty committee said in the joint letter from an interfaith coalition.

"We believe that protecting the ability of all Americans to live out their faith without fear or harm is one of the most important duties of the federal government," the letter's signers said.

It was addressed to House and Senate chairs, vice chairs and ranking members serving on their respective chambers' Committee on Appropriations and the Subcommittee on Homeland Security.

The coalition is calling on Congress to quadruple the total funding for the program to $360 million.

Groups joining the letter included the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America; National Association of Evangelicals; U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations; Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty; the Jewish Federations of North America; National Council of Churches in Christ in the USA; North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventists; Sikh Council for Interfaith Relations, Agudath Israel of America; and the Episcopal Church.

"We are grateful to Congress for establishing the NSGP program to better integrate nonprofit preparedness investments and activities within the broader whole community response to violent extremism," the interfaith coalition's letter said. "These security grants benefit people of all faiths.

"At a time of increasing extremism and antagonism toward different religious groups and religion in general, we believe significant increased funding for this important government program in fiscal year 2021 is imperative," the letter added.

Among the most recent attacks on a Catholic church took place in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida. Surveillance video from Incarnation Catholic Church in a suburb of Tampa that was released Sept. 22 showed a man lighting several pews on fire Sept. 18.

On Oct. 1, a spokeswoman for the diocese told Catholic News Service that an arrest has been made in the case.

"While arson and other acts of vandalism are not to be condoned, especially when it involves a sacred space, such as a church, synagogue or mosque, our faith reminds us to love our neighbor, and to pray for the conversion of those who carry out such acts of desecration," the diocese said in a statement. "We ask that the Lord will bring healing and peace to the person who started the fire."

Across the country, several days after the attack on the Tampa-area church, St. Peter's Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon, California, the seat of the Eparchy of St. Peter the Apostle, and a Syriac Catholic church nearby, Our Mother of Perpetual Help, were found defaced with all kinds of graffiti the morning of Sept. 26.

According to some reports, there have been more instances of anti-Catholic violence this summer than the FBI cataloged in all of 2018 -- the most recent year it has on record.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020