Portman Urges Swift Passage of Bipartisan Pray Safe Act to Protect Houses of Worship & Nonprofit Organizations from Terrorist Attacks

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, delivered opening remarks at a hearing to examine threats against houses of worship and public spaces. He urged the Senate to pass his bipartisan Pray Safe Act to establish a federal clearinghouse through which faith-based organizations and houses of worship could access information on safety and security best practices, available federal grant programs, and training opportunities. The legislation has passed out of the Committee and must now be considered before the full Senate.

In addition, Portman highlighted the importance of the Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP), which provides grants to faith-based and other nonprofit organizations to help secure their facilities against a potential terrorist attack. Portman has been a long supporter of NSGP and announced last week that the FY 2022 bipartisan funding agreement includes $250 million for the  program, increasing the amount allocated in FY 2021 by $70 million from a previous allocation of $180 million. The Nonprofit Security Grant Program supports nonprofit organizations most at risk through the acquisition and installation of physical target hardening measures, related preparedness and prevention planning, training, and exercises, and contracted security personnel so that religious and community-based organizations have the critical resources and tools they need to protect lives and property, and worship without fear. The intent is to integrate nonprofit preparedness activities with broader state and local preparedness efforts. It is also designed to promote coordination and collaboration in emergency preparedness activities among public and private community representatives, as well as state and local government agencies.

The transcript of his opening statement can be found below and a video can be found here.

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you to the witnesses for being here. I look forward to hearing from you. This is another important hearing we’re having to discuss the elevated threat of violence and terrorism against our houses of worship. Just over two months ago, a terrorist made his way to the Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas and held four people hostage for over 10 hours. The perpetrator, Malik Faisal Akram, traveled to the United States from the UK with the intent to commit violence.

“I’m concerned that this attack was not prevented. Why was this person not on the government’s radar, considering his criminal record in history of being investigated for terrorism in the United Kingdom? Why was he granted access to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program, especially after he lied on his paperwork to Customs and Border Protection?

“In spite of his dangerous past, he was able to travel to the United States, fly from New York to Texas, illegally purchase a firearm. It was only after he attacked a synagogue that our law enforcement or Homeland Security officials detected a threat. The incident in Colleyville was a blatant act of antisemitism and terrorism against the Jewish community.

“For too long, Jews in the United States have been targeted and attacked for their faith, facing threats of harassment and violence at an exceptionally high rate. The Jewish community is the target now of more than half of all religious based crimes, and yet the community only makes up about two percent of the US population. The anti-Semitic violence has taken the lives of too many people.

“In 2019, one person was killed and three injured at the horrific attack against the Chabad of Poway in California. In 2018, eleven congregants were killed and six injured at the Tree of Life Synagogue outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In the last five years, anti-Semitic incidents across the country have nearly doubled.

“Threats of violence go beyond just targeting the Jewish community. I often hear from faith leaders in Ohio that the Christian, Muslim and Sikh communities continue to face threats of terrorism and violence. According to the Global Terrorism Database, terrorist attacks against religious institutions accounted for over 25 percent of all terrorist attacks within the United States between 2009 and 2019. That statistic is deeply troubling and threatens our First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

“Terrorists and extremists often target crowded spaces with little or no security. Three years ago, an assailant with white supremacist views targeting the Mexican community opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, killing 23 and injuring 24. The following night, an assailant with extremist left wing views, killed nine and injured 27 on a busy Dayton Street in my home state of Ohio.

“After seeing the devastating effects of terrorism across our houses of worship and communities, we are fortunate that the attack on the Beth Israel congregation this January didn’t end up in the loss of innocent life. While the ultimate goal is to prevent these attacks from happening in the first place, this incident shows us how preparedness and security can prevent violent attacks from escalating to lethal ones.

“In particular, Congregation Beth Israel was a recipient of the FEMA’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program. This program has funded the synagogue’s camera system, among other things, and improved the facility’s overall security and provided first responders with situational awareness during the standoff. There was also training provided. I’ve been a longtime supporter of the Nonprofit Security Grant Program. In 2019, I authored its first authorization, working with the Chairman and others, working to expand it to all 50 States.

“I’ve also worked to double the funds from $90 million to $180 million in January and led a letter to the Appropriations Committee for increasing funds to a level that reflects the growing terrorist threat to nonprofits and houses of worship. Last week, I was pleased that Congress appropriated $250 million to the program for fiscal year 2022. It’s an increase that, unfortunately, is needed. In addition to the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, Rabbi Charlie Crichton Walker, who was a hostage at Colleyville, has credited security workshops and training sessions by federal and local law enforcement and nonprofits for providing the knowledge that saved his life. Unfortunately, many religious communities still don’t know how to access these training or grant programs through the Nonprofit Security Grant Program. We need to do better.

“That’s why I introduced the bipartisan Pray Safe Act with Senator Hassan, who is here today, Senator Peters, Senator Johnson, Senator Rosen, and Senator Rounds. The Pray Safe Act directs the federal government to establish a centralized clearing house of safety and security, best practices, training opportunities, grant application information, other assistance, all dedicated toward the simple goal of securing houses of worship against terrorism and violence. In the aftermath of this Colleyville attack, it’s more necessary than ever that Congress quickly passes this legislation.

“We’ve held conferences in Ohio where we bring in the FBI, bring in Homeland Security, make sure that people understand what’s available to them. And it’s amazing the uptake so when houses of worship understand what they can have access to, including best practices, simple things, how to make their houses of worship more secure, they respond.

“As we work to prevent violent incidents from occurring, we must acknowledge that religious communities and other targets of terrorism are threatened by actors that hold a variety of ideological belief systems and motivations. And we cannot lose sight of the fact that there are concerning trends and threats posed by both homegrown and international terrorists.

“Again, I thank the witnesses for coming today. I look forward to your testimony and to your commitment for keeping Americans safe. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”