Ohio religious leaders are thinking about how they can keep congregants safe in churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship as they confront the threat of mass shooters walking through their doors.
“Bigotry and hate is something that is far too common today in our culture and it’s manifested in a number of ways but one is increased threat to our houses of worship and religion,” said Sen. Rob Portman, a Cincinnati Republican, after a panel discussion his office organized Thursday at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus.
Portman said he organized the event after the October 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, where a gunman killed 11 people.
Sign up for our politics newsletterThe Ohio Faith-Based Security Conference included about 100 Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Christian and Jewish religious leaders from around the state.
Portman was joined by Gov. Mike DeWine, Ohio Department of Public Safety Director Tom Stickrath and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Deputy Director Matthew Travis, who works in the department’s cybersecurity and infrastructure security agency. A panel of security experts spoke to the group as well.
The event was closed to the media.
Security experts were to provide information to attendees about “vulnerability assessments,” which the Department of Homeland Security will conduct for no charge, Travis said. That includes a walk-through of buildings to identify ways to improve security.
Portman said the biggest question from religious leaders is how they can pay for security upgrades.
A pool of security grant funding from the federal government has grown from $25 million to $60 million this year, he said, with about $450,000 flowing to Ohio in 2019. That money now can be used to pay for armed security as well as monitoring devices, such as cameras, he said.
DeWine has proposed a package of legislative measures to curb gun violence, but he said Wednesday that religious organizations can tap into about $4.7 million a year earmarked in the two-year state budget to improve security.
“One of the things that is a reality of the world we live in today is that we have domestic terrorists. We have people who live among us literally American citizens who for whatever reason have great hatred for a religion and the people who belong to that religion. It’s incumbent upon all of us to denounce that, to continue to denounce it, to give it no oxygen at all,” DeWine said.
Portman said he supports DeWine’s proposed red-flag law that would allow law enforcement to confiscate guns from an individual who is determined to be a harm to themselves or others after a court hearing. Asked if he supported expanded background checks at the federal level, Portman said that the federal government “can tighten background checks in ways that are meaningful.”
For example, individuals who have mental health problems sometimes aren’t entered into the federal background check system, he said.
“I think we can do more to tighten that up. My understanding is that the president and others are willing to work on this together because if it’s not bipartisan it’s not going to happen,” Portman said.