It’s impossible to predict every religiously motivated hate crime or targeted violent event, but tools are available to local churches to prevent it, U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) experts agree. Their assessment was part of an educational session for dozens of Seventh-day Adventist religious liberty advocates at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. on May 20, 2019.
In the opening session, Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination from the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice Eric Treene reviewed landmark legislation passed by the U.S. government and those laws’ relation to religious liberty since the Civil Rights Acts of 1964. They include the Fair Housing Act (“the right to associate with persons of another race or religion in a dwelling”) and the Church Arson Prevention Act, which covers all intentional damage to religious properties.
“The question is, what can places of worship do to reduce risks?” Treene asked. “It is important to educate [religious leaders] but also to share educational opportunities [they] can use at the local level.”
Treene, whose job is to help prosecute religious hate crimes, explained that even though this type of events seems to have increased in the United States in recent times, the number of convictions is also on the rise.
Threats to Religious Entities
As part of the same talk, Treene discussed threats to religious entities and how the law of the land seeks to balance freedom of speech and protection against harm.
“Under the U.S. Constitution, no one can be punished for having abstract beliefs and for expressing such beliefs,” he explained. “And no one can be punished for peacefully advocating for the advancement or implementation of such beliefs, or for being a member of a group that has, expresses, or advocates for such beliefs.”
Treene emphasized that to be dealt with by law enforcement, a threat has to be “a serious communication of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence.” “It does not include genuine jokes, expressions of anger, or political hyperbole,” he said.
What should one do if a church or religious entity receives a threat? “Call 911 to start,” Treene said. “And then contact an attorney.”
He emphasized that taking proactive steps can go a long way to dealing with a threat. “Don’t wait until something happens to get to know your local enforcement agencies,” Treene said. “When nothing is happening is the time to develop a relationship.”
Churches and Targeted Violence
Problem mitigation before anything happens is essential, according to FBI Supervisory Special Agent (SSA) André Simmons. Simmons, who works at the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit, said there are things churches can do to prevent episodes of targeted violence (usually involving an active shooter).
Simmons, who in 13 years has responded to 10 active shooter incidents, explained that, contrary to what the media sometimes portray, active shooters follow a long process which takes them from a mere grievance to the completed attack.
“Targeted violence is not emotional or instantaneous violence; it’s not someone who just snaps,” he explained. “It is usually based on fear, frustration, and a search for notoriety by attacking very vulnerable, sympathetic populations, including congregants at houses of worship, which can be a very desirable target.”
Simmons explained that while every one of us experiences grievances in life, for people who have poor coping skills, those grievances “come to dominate their thoughts until they become saturated with it.”
“Studies show that in the year preceding the attack, active shooters were typically experiencing multiple stressors, and each one of them displayed between four and five concerning behaviors,” Simmons said.
Unfortunately, Simmons added, studies have also shown that when concerning behavior was observed, one of the most common responses by people in contact with the person of concern was to do nothing about it. But everyone, including local churches, can do better, he insisted.
What can local churches do to prevent a targeted violence attack?
According to FBI agents Steven B. Bennett and John P. Skillestad, it starts by acknowledging that we live in a world where these things can happen. “Do not have an ‘it will never happen here’ mindset,” Skillestad said, “because it could happen.”
At the same time, the agents advised local churches to act proactively.
“Do not let someone else dictate your survival plan,” Skillestad told Adventist leaders. “Churches should have a plan, and that plan should be flexible.”
Among many practical suggestions, he shared how to hide, block entrances, and when and how to call law enforcement. He also advised on how to provide care and take action if needed to help other people in distress or hurt.
Local churches should also use resources already available, including the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service, the agents said. That office regularly runs programs to help communities prevent and respond to hate crimes, protect places of worship through education and dialogue, and reduce risks during public events.
It is something that could help local Adventist churches not only to protect themselves but help them reach out to their neighbors and friends to work toward a safer environment, leaders said.
“Education and dialogue can go a long way to preventing acts of hate and violence,” they said.