- Across the country, thousands of houses of worship are beefing up security.
- The federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars for providing security and training grants for houses of worship and other nonprofits.
LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Stason Ikenouye’s eyes sweep across the worshipers streaming into the lobby of Flatirons Community Church. Couples with small kids walk hand-in-hand from their SUVs as carols play from overhead speakers.
But he’s not watching the people lining up for free bagels and hot coffee, or the selfie-snapping folks who’ve donned Christmas sweaters despite the warm winter day.
Instead, his mission is the grim reality of American life: Watching for an active shooter entering the church.
Scattered through the lobby are about a dozen other men dressed like him, with radio earpieces curling out of the collars of their untucked black tactical shirts with “SECURITY” emblazoned on the back – and handguns concealed beneath. Other plainclothes guards circulate as worshippers file into the 4,300-seat auditorium and clocks count down to the start of 9 a.m. services. In a back office, another guard monitors a command center of security cameras.
“We’re trying to strike that balance between having security and being welcoming,” says Ikenouye, a former police officer and private detective who serves as the church’s security head. “We could lock it all down but no one would come because it wouldn’t feel welcoming.”
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Across the country, thousands of churches, synagogues, temples and mosques have beefed up security, from deploying armed guards to installing metal detectors or permitting worship access only to people on a pre-approved list. With Christmas approaching and Hanukkah ongoing, many Christian and Jewish facilities are taking extra care.
Recent attacks on houses of worship include:
- The Jan. 15, 2022, attack and hostage taking at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas.
- The April 27, 2019, attack at the Chabad of synagogue in Poway, California, on the last day of Passover in which one person was killed and several others injured.
- The March, 15, 2019, Christchurch, New Zealand, attacks by a white supremacist who killed 51 people at two mosques.
- The Oct. 27, 2018, attack at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue that killed 11 and wounded six others.
- The Nov. 5, 2017, Sutherland Springs church shooting in New Braunfels, Texas, in which 26 people were killed before the gunman shot himself.
Jewish community leaders are particularly worried: the Anti-Defamation League said hate incidents targeting Jewish people reached an all-time high of 2,717 in 2021 – a 34% increase and the highest number since the group began tracking in 1979.
After 9/11, Jewish groups lobbied the federal government to begin providing security and training grants for houses of worship and other nonprofits, and funding has risen from $20 million in 2016 to $180 million available last year. This year, the federal National Defense Authorization Act is set to increase the funding even more.
Federal officials already encourage houses of worship to consider whether they have security cameras, bollards to protect from vehicle-based attacks, and even whether the building’s doors have handles that an attacker could seal with a chain to delay a police response. The new funding would help install additional security measures, hire guards and deploy cameras, along with providing training on how to handle an active-shooter incident.
It’s that kind of training that experts say helped defuse the Jan. 15, 2022, attack on Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, where an armed man took multiple hostages as services were being livestreamed. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who received several different security trainings over the previous years, threw a chair at the man, allowing hostages to escape 11 hours after the incident began. Police then killed the gunman.
“Those sessions helped me to stay alert, look for an opportunity, and gave me the courage to act,” Cytron-Walker told Congress this February. “… because of all the plans and funding and courses and literally dozens of small things that just happened to go our way, we were able to escape. And right now, there are far too many houses of worship that are just beginning the process we started six years ago.”
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Eric Fingerhut, president of the Jewish Federation of North America, said even small changes can be critical, citing an October 2019 attack on a German synagogue on Yom Kippur. In that attack, a neo-Nazi who espoused antisemitic beliefs failed to get inside because the security team saw him approaching the building on security cameras, and then locked the building’s bulletproof doors, which the attacker tried to blast open with explosives before killing two people outside.
“We are not trying to build fortresses here. But we want to create places where people feel safe,” Fingerhut said. “The question is, what level of security is going to make people feel safe enough to come.”
Back at Flatirons Community Church, Ikenouye is still scanning the crowd, saying “hi” to a handful he knows and accepting “thank yous” from congregants acknowledging the presence of his team. The church decided to ramp up its security presence following the Dec. 29, 2019, West Freeway Church of Christ attack, where two worshippers were killed before a volunteer security guard shot the gunman dead.
The small city that Flatirons calls home provides a single uniformed officer for each service, parking a marked SUV in front of the doors. Ikenouye said the church is proud it can afford to staff such a professional security team, and he hopes to use their experiences to train smaller churches. Children attend separate services at Flatirons, with a sophisticated system of stickers and check-ins designed to keep out anyone not authorized inside the kids’ ministry section — along with two armed guards stationed at the entrances.
“One of the biggest compliments we can get is when a police officer comes in with their family and says ‘thank you for being here so I can worship without worrying about safety,'” Ikenouye says.