October 04, 2018 - Thursday
Property Law Does Good Deed for Faith Groups
It was the seventh break-in of the summer. Pastor Elijah Mwitani wouldn't have believed it if it weren't for the smashed windows and carved-up pews. At Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Annandale, the vandalism was almost as regular as the worship services. Whoever it was had been coming every day, every other day, every week. They cut cords to the sound equipment, spray painted the walls, crushed glass against the walls.
The fourth time it happened, the trespassers weren't alone. When they saw a young man downstairs, they grabbed a fire extinguisher, and hit him over the head. After a trip to the emergency room and tens of thousands of dollars in damage, Pastor Mwitani feared for his congregation. Smashing their way through the sanctuary is one thing, but now, he told reporters, "The fact that it's escalated, to the point where they now have a signature on it, makes us wonder what the ultimate goal is."
He's not the only one. Type "church vandalism" into any search engine, and you'll see a surprising number of results. And while most stories aren't making it past the local news, it's obvious that churches, synagogues, and mosques are in greater danger than ever. In the Carolinas, the pastor at Lake Bowen Baptist Church walked into knives thrown in the wall, classrooms with disgusting messages and artwork, and every drink in the cafeteria poured on the floor. At Destiny Outreach Ministries in Colorado, the carpet was so covered in broken glass that people couldn't walk from one side to the other. Cabinet doors were yanked off, there were sledgehammer holes in the wall, even the grand piano was missing its cover.
Church security, everywhere, in every denomination, is at risk. Back in Utah, Senator Orrin Hatch (R) saw members of the Mormon church harassed and mistreated -- so badly that he decided to do something about it. That "something" was the Protecting Religiously Affiliated Institutions Act. After more than 100 bomb threats against Jewish centers last year and a string of horrific church shootings, Senator Hatch lead the fight to crack down on people who try to turn houses of worship into targets. "In recent years, we've witnessed an alarming upsurge in threats of violence made against religious institutions," he said. "I've long held that an attack on one religion is an attack on all, which is why I have worked tirelessly to strengthen religious liberty protections for people of all faiths."
This week, he saw the fruit of that work, as President Trump signed his bill into law -- increasing the penalty to up to three years in prison and a fine for the wave of crime hitting religious groups across the country. To the relief of groups like FRC, Senator Hatch also expanded the definition of what's considered religious property. For the first time, faith-based nonprofits will get the same protection as churches, which is especially important now in a political climate that's getting more violent by the minute.
Speaking of politics, it was more than a little noteworthy that the bill's cosponsors are the same people at the middle of the Kavanaugh fireworks: Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). I suppose we should be grateful that even in the midst of one of the fiercest chapters in Congress, the Senate can still manage to come together on something as important as church security.
As Senator Hatch said, the people targeting religious groups "post a danger to the religious freedom and security of all Americans. I am proud to sponsor this bill that will protect houses of worship and affiliate community centers. These attacks are inexcusable. I want to thank my colleagues in both the House and Senate, as well as the president, for working swiftly to sign our legislation into law."
Meanwhile, people like Pastor Mwitani aren't deterred. His church is here to minister to everyone -- including the people responsible. "We hope that the person who's doing this -- if it is just something that they are troubled by in the mind -- [knows] we would be here to help. It doesn't have to end up in a situation where somebody gets hurt or killed." Bethlehem Lutheran "is very intentional about being welcoming." And although the community is sad about what happened, he insists that all this does "is just energize us to do even more."