Private security guards would patrol churches, mosques and synagogues on the city’s dime if a bill sponsored by three Brooklyn elected officials is approved by the City Council.
Democratic Councilmembers Justin Brannan, Chaim Deutsch and Kalman Yeger are the main architects behind a bill introduced on Wednesday that would allow houses of worship to hire private security, including armed guards, and then apply to the city to be reimbursed for the costs.
Reimbursing religious institutions for security guards could cost as much as $200 million, according to one official. The program would not be mandatory and houses of worship would have to meet certain specifications in order to qualify for funding.
The measure is designed to help safeguard religious institutions against terror attacks, according to Yeger, who represents Borough Park and parts of Bensonhurst. The Borough Park portion of his district is home to a large population of Orthodox Jewish residents and contains numerous synagogues. But Yeger was quick to point out that the bill covers all religions.
“We have seen that houses of worship are regularly coming under attack. We have to do everything we can to protect them. Keeping people safe is a basic function of government,” Yeger told this newspaper.
Yeger said incidents like the deadly mass shootings at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in California and the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, as well as the recent arrest of a suspect who allegedly intended to set fire to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, make the proposed legislation all the more necessary.
“St. Patrick’s is a grand, beautiful building. It’s really America’s cathedral. Can you imagine if anything happened to it?” Yeger asked.
The bill is not meant as a knock on the NYPD, according to Brannan, who represents Bay Ridge Dyker Heights and parts of Bensonhurst.
“The NYPD does a great job keeping our big city safe but this would give all houses of worship the option to hire additional security and then be reimbursed,” he said via email.
Brannan admitted that the issue of safety and security in houses of worship has taken on a heightened sense of urgency in recent months.
“This bill comes after a series of harrowing attacks on churches, synagogues and mosques around the world. How can we pray for peace if we can’t pray in peace? I don’t care what you believe: a place of worship should never be a place of fear,” he wrote.
Councilmembers held a rally outside City Hall on Tuesday, the day before the bill was set to be introduced, to garner support for the legislation.
“Every time an attack that occurs in a house of worship we tend to send out a tweet condemning those actions and sending our condolences. Now we need to take proactive measures and not be reactive. Let’s not send out those condolences. We have to face reality here in New York City and it’s time that this administration funds security for all our houses of worship,” Deutsch said at the rally.
Deutsch’s Council district includes parts of Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach and Sheepshead Bay.
Rabbi Aaron Raskin, the religious leader of Congregation B’nai Avraham in Brooklyn Heights, endorsed the bill. “I think it’s an amazing idea. There are cities in Europe that pay for security for local synagogues,” he told this newspaper.
Raskin added, however, that beefing up security isn’t the only answer.
“We have to get to the core of the problem. We’re not educating our youth to respect the value of human life,” he said.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberities Union, said she is troubled by the bill.
“Any time government officials seek to siphon away public funds for private religious institutions we should be concerned about the privileging of religion and the separation of church and state. Publicly funding private armed guards at houses of worship is a scattershot approach to public safety, a poor use of resources and sits on shaky constitutional ground,” she said.
Yeger said he is aware of the bill’s possible implications on the constitutional issue of separation of church and state, but added that he isn’t worried about stepping over a line.
“The government already provides services to religious institutions. If a house of worship is on fire, the FDNY puts the fire out,” he told this newspaper.
There is a precedent for using taxpayer funding to pay for private entities.
In 2015, the City Council approved legislation to have the city pay for unarmed security guards at private schools.
The program, which started out in 127 schools at a cost of $4 million, is expected to expand to 163 schools and cost $10.7 million this year, The City reported. That means the average cost per school ballooned from about $31,500 to more than $65,600.
Meanwhile, there is action taking place at the federal level to increase security measures at non-profit institutions.
U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand are pushing for an increase in funding for the Senate Nonprofit Security Grant Program to help non-profits protect themselves. The program is run under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Schumer and Gillibrand, two Democrats who represent New York, are leading a bipartisan coalition of 33 senators seeking to provide a total of $75 million in a homeland security appropriations bill for the security grant program. The program provides funding for non-profit institutions to install physical security enhancements to help prevent terror attacks.
“There have been far too many heartless and horrific hate crimes targeting places of worship throughout America recently and we must do all we can to help people of all faiths worship in security and safety,” Schumer said in a statement.