The Lead

Wolf signs bill to let synagogues, mosques and churches apply for $5M in safety grants

By: - November 8, 2019 12:18 pm

The Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. (Capital-Star photo)

In response to last year’s Tree of Life shooting, Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday signed into law a $5 million program that provides grants to beef up security at nonprofits, such as houses of worship or a faith-based community center. 

The program was originally proposed by Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, as part of a larger proposal to fight hate, after the October 2018  shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue that claimed the lives of 11 Jewish people while they were worshipping. Police say the alleged shooter targeted them because of their faith.

‘We can’t ignore signs of hate’: One year later, Pittsburgh still healing from Tree of Life shooting

“Regardless of faith or background, everyone deserves to feel safe in their place of worship,” Dinniman said in a statement when the bill passed the Senate in October.

The grants are only available to a nonprofit that “principally serves individuals, groups or institutions” that have been specifically targeted for a hate crime, as listed in a 2018 report from the FBI.

Funding could go to nonprofits serving such groups as, among others:

  • African-Americans
  • Jewish people
  • Muslims
  • LGBTQ people
  • Christians (including Protestants, Catholics, Mormon’s and Jehovah’s Witnesses)

Out of 8,828 hate crimes in 2017, the report found that nearly 60 percent of national hate crimes victims were targeted because of their race, ethnicity or ancestry.

A little less than 21 percent of victims were targeted because of their religion, and just less than 16 percent were targeted because of their sexual orientation.

Grants will be administered by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, and can range from $5,000 to $150,000 each. They can be put towards, among other things:

  • Security planning and training
  • Emergency response training and threat assessments
  • Security upgrades to buildings
  • The purchase of security equipment or technology, including metal detectors, surveillance equipment, locks, and communications equipment, as well as “specialty-trained canines.”

“Schools and other community institutions should be a safe place for every child and resident,” Wolf said in a statement. “I thank the bipartisan efforts that helped ensure safety and security funding was available for these non-profit, community institutions where people gather and should have peace of mind.”

The bill passed the Senate unanimously, and the House with just four dissenting votes from central Pennsylvania conservative Republicans.

The General Assembly may add extra money to the program over the next few years, until July 2024, when the program will be shuttered.

“This is the culmination of a year-long negotiation, spearheaded by leadership committed to protect our community centers, spiritual homes and other communal facilities throughout the Commonwealth,” Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition Chairman Marc Zucker said in a statement. “The Jewish Federations across Pennsylvania are so grateful for the governmental commitment to the safety and security of all citizens embodied in this legislation.”

He added: “We are hopeful that the allocation of these resources will add a measure of comfort to those institutions and are grateful to the governor and the General Assembly for the visionary leadership that led to this historic achievement.”

Besides the grant program, Democrats have been trying to garner bipartisan support for a package of hate crimes legislation, to expand who is covered and increase penalties.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.