Republican bill aims to help small Arizona religious congregations stay safe
Bill has bipartisan support & would provide funds to groups that are often targets of hate
A Republican bill with bipartisan support in the state legislature could help small congregations that are sometimes the targets of hate crimes or terror attacks shore up their security with state money.
Senate Bill 1713 would appropriate $5 million from the state general fund in 2024 and create the Arizona State Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which would be administered by the Arizona Department of Homeland Security. The program would mirror a similar federal program that larger churches already use and that many smaller congregations have trouble taking advantage of, according to the bill’s sponsor Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista.
The federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program helps nonprofits that are at risk by assisting them in hardening their security. The state program aims to do the same thing but for smaller congregations that are often the target of hate crimes and harassment.
Target hardening means creating a visible defense that aims to deter or prevent a possible attack or crime. In some instances that can mean security cameras, fences or security guards.
Gowan said that he realized only larger churches were fully able to take advantage of the federal program and that is where SB1713 can come in to fill the gap. Many local faith leaders seem to agree.
“Smaller communities are inherently more vulnerable,” Imam Omar Tawil of the Islamic Community Center of Tempe told the Arizona Mirror. Tawil’s community has been the target of harassment and hate in Tempe for some time.
The Muslim community in Arizona has faced a litany of Islamophobic issues from high profile protests to murders.
“We face all types of harassment and types of threats,” Tawil said. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the mosque had security guards as an “inherent deterrent” because of the larger-than-usual number of people coming in and out of the mosque, creating more visibility for worshippers.
Being able to apply for a grant to get more security cameras would help the mosque with blind spots to possibly identify perpetrators of vandalism, violence and other crimes, Tawil said. The Tempe mosque has often been a target for threats of violence, vandalism and hateful protests.
“We are coming to worship God and have a sense of community,” Tawil said. “Them knowing that there is special money directly funding a more advanced security protocol or even security guards will help put their mind at ease.”
Other congregations are feeling the same pressure.
Rev. Katie Sexton-Wood, executive director of the Arizona Faith Network, which represents around 4,200 faith leaders of a large variety of faiths, said that back when she was a pastor in 2019, active shooter drills were a common occurrence among her flock.
“It is frightening, that these spaces that are supposed to be sanctuaries of safety and prayer and leading to people bowing their heads with one eye on the door,” Sexton-Wood said, recalling a time she was about to start preaching but just before she did, she made sure the doors were locked.
Shootings at churches are a relatively modern phenomenon. Data analyzed by the Violence Project shows that the first mass shooting at a church didn’t occur until the 1980s and shootings at churches began to escalate in the mid-2000s, committed by perpetrators with histories of either racism, anti-semitism, anti-Christianity, Islamophobia or ties to Neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups.
The majority of mass shootings involve religious hate, such as the 2012 shooting in Wisconsin at a Sikh Temple where a white supremacist, bent on a racial holy war, killed six people.
“I think just being the target of hate crimes for so long because of our visible identity is incredibly important to us,” Anjleen Gumer, executive director of the Loving Library told the Mirror.
Gumer, a member of the Sikh faith, said that SB1713 would help communities like hers get additional security from those who seek to do harm and provide some comfort from the anxiety they feel.
“I think with the passing of this bill, it really gives us security to keep our gurdwaras safe,” Gumer said. “I think while it provides security for our faith it gives security to everyone who is attending as well.”
Gurdwaras, or the place of worship for Sikhs, are open to the public but the public often has misconceptions about members of the Sikh faith. These misconceptions led to the first major hate crime post 9/11 which happened in Arizona.
Four days after the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi was planting some flowers around the edge of the gas station he owned in Mesa when a man, incensed by anti-immigrant sentiments and allegedly looking for revenge for the attacks, shot and killed Sodhi.
The traditional garb of Sikhs often makes them a target by those who harbor hate toward Muslims and who incorrectly believe traditional Sikh turbans are an indication of the Muslim faith. Many also harbor hate towards Sikhs due to anti-immigrant and other racist beliefs.
“We are trying to get to the smaller houses of worship and non-profits to make sure we can get to as many as possible,” Gowan told Mirror about his bill, adding that it is a kind of pilot program.
The bill made it out of the Senate with largely bipartisan support. Some Republicans who had concerns about how the funds might be distributed during a Senate Appropriations meeting voted against it on the floor, along with two Democratic members.
Gowan isn’t worried about the bill making it past the House and said that concerns about fund distribution are misplaced, because the money will be distributed by the Department of Homeland Security, which distributes the dollars from the federal version of the program.
“I’m proud of this bill and I hope that we take this home, and I pray that the governor will put a little signature on it,” Gowan said.
Smaller houses of worship are hoping for that signature from the governor as well but also are disheartened that a bill like SB1713 is necessary.
“We’ve gone forward in many ways and gone backward in so many ways,” Gumer said. “I think there is a real need for bills like this.”
Sexton-Wood said that it isn’t the “end all solution” to the rise of hate and discrimination we are seeing across the country but this bill could help prevent a faith-based shooting in Arizona.
“We have an agreement that our citizenship should be safe as they worship in all different ways,” Sexton-Wood said. “I’m excited to see where this goes. It gives some life and unity down at the legislature this year.”
The bill is currently waiting to be heard on the House floor.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.