Maryland legislators, faith leaders back funding increase in wake of religious hate crimes
Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun
Government funding for the protection of synagogues, mosques and churches has been on the rise in Maryland and across the United States in the past half-decade and more, but legislators and faith leaders are calling for a vast increase in such funding as threats against religious institutions persist.
Maryland’s U.S. senators, Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, and Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders were among those who gathered Monday at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in Pikesville to back a proposal calling for a quadrupling of funding provided by the federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program, to $360 million in fiscal year 2021.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security received a 50% increase in funding for the program, to $90 million, as part of the budget for fiscal year 2020.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York floated the proposal for a further increase after the stabbing last month of five people at a Hanukkah celebration in the New York City suburbs and a recent string of attacks against Jews in the streets of Brooklyn, New York. He has said the apparent rise in such attacks in New York and elsewhere have rendered inadequate even the recent increases in funding.
“America is in a national crisis. I’m calling for much stronger federal action to increase funds to protect places of worship and prosecute hate crimes,” Schumer tweeted Dec. 31 as he introduced the idea.
Van Hollen agreed with his Senate colleague on the urgency of the situation.
“We have to come together here in the state of Maryland and across the country to confront this hate and division, not just through words, but in our actions," said Van Hollen, a Democratic member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee who supported the increase in the current budget.
Baltimore faith leaders said they could use any increased funding to harden security in houses of worship and to support outreach programs that would encourage awareness and understanding across faith traditions.
Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, Baltimore Jewish Council Executive Director Howard Libit and Mubaraz Razvi of the United Maryland Muslim Council were among the faith leaders and local legislators who also called for unity in the face of acts of hatred.
“The concrete steps we support here are vitally important,” Lori said during his remarks, “but let us also continue to put our faith in the simple act of coming together, standing side-by-side to demonstrate the love that will always be a greater power than evil.”
Established in 2002 in response to the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and the Washington, D.C., area, the Nonprofit Security Grant Program allows houses of worship to apply for up to $100,000 in grants to improve their protection against terror attacks.
Maryland organizations received more than $3 million last year through the program, including grants to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Suburban Orthodox Toras Chaim in Pikesville, the Islamic Society of Annapolis, and the Baltimore Catholic diocese.
Such funding has been “vital” in Maryland — a state “that has a long and proud tradition of religious tolerance,” Lori said — in helping “Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and other religious groups, and other nonprofit organizations ... to provide security-related training and security equipment, as well as to undertake other security-enhancing activities.”
Baltimore-area institutions have received more than $11 million over the history of the program, according to Libit, including about $1.45 million awarded last fall.
Lori said St. John’s Regional Catholic School in Frederick has been one beneficiary in Maryland, and Rudwan Abu-rumman, president of the Anne Arundel County Muslim Council, said the Islamic Society of Annapolis has received $200,000.
Libit said Maryland’s congressional delegation has worked in a bipartisan way to increase the flow of grants to the state and to the Baltimore area, in particular, over the past few years.
He added that their efforts “helped inspire leadership in Annapolis,” as Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and the Democratic-controlled Maryland General Assembly “have led the creation of state programs over the past two years that are creating new pools of money" to help create "better security at our schools and institutions at risk of hate crimes.”
He pointed to state funding that dedicated $2 million to enhancing security for religious schools and child-care centers, $3 million for places of worship, and $3.5 million for security upgrades at aging nonpublic schools, all as part of the current budget. The $2 million figure represents a doubling of the previous year’s total.
At a time when security costs at synagogues and other houses of worship are skyrocketing, the funding is “making a difference,” Libit said.
Despite the increases, speakers such as Cardin, Van Hollen and Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, said more money is needed at a time of frighteningly frequent religious hate crimes.
Diament cited the recent attacks in New York, as well as firebombings of mosques and shootings at churches as he applauded Cardin, Van Hollen and Sarbanes for joining the push for a dramatic increase at the federal level.
When he worked with coalition partners to help establish the Nonprofit Security Grant Program 17 years ago, he said, “we did not envision the nightmare that the Jewish community and other faith communities are experiencing today.”