‘That could be any of us’: Senate Dems propose $10M safety grant program for Pa. houses of worship

Pennsylvania Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, speaks on a proposal to offer $10 million in state grant money to improve security at houses of worship. The proposal comes in response to last year's deadly shooting at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek).

(*This story has been updated to correctly note the $70 million that was appropriated to Pennsylvania’s school safety grant program.)

Motivated by last year’s massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, Democrats in the Pennsylvania Senate on Monday proposed a $10 million grant program to help faith-based institutions improve security and open a dialogue with their community.

“We’re quite capable of prayers. But it’s no longer enough to say that we’ll pray for you,” one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, said at a Capitol news conference.

The yet-to-be introduced legislation that Dinniman is co-sponsoring with Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, would funnel the grant money through the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, according to an April 8 memo from Dinniman’s office seeking co-sponsors for the plan.

The legislation is modeled after last year’s school safety grant program, which appropriated *$70 million to schools to improve building security. Like that program, qualifying institutions could use the money to install metal detectors, electronic lock systems, and other improvements, backers said Monday.

Funding for the program would come from a projected $850 million year-end budget surplus, backers said. Though the end of the 2018-19 fiscal year is still weeks away at June 30, lawmakers are eyeing the money for state programs, even as the Democratic Wolf administration, joined by legislative Republicans, say it should be socked away in reserve.

Schwank, of Reading, who sits on her local synagogue’s board of directors, said the state’s minority faith communities — which includes both Jews and Muslims alike — are “facing an unfortunate truth” in the rise in hate crimes.

“This bill, over time, will help people feel safe and restore their peace of mind,” Schwank said Monday, adding, “It makes me feel sick to have to address this … but we have an intolerance problem, and it will fester unless we address it.”

Including the Tree of Life shootings, which claimed the lives of 11 people and wounded four more, there were 89 reported acts of anti-Semitism in Pennsylvania in 2018, according to data compiled by the Anti-Defamation League. Nationally, there were 59 victims of anti-Semitic violence last year, nearly three times higher than the 2017 tally, according to ADL data.

While the grant program is primarily intended to help synagogues, mosques, and other faith communities, backers said Monday that the bill is also aimed at opening a dialogue of tolerance, respect, and understanding across the state.

The bill has been christened the “TRU” program for that very reason, they said.

“The primary role of government is to provide for the safety and security of its citizens,” said Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, another of the proposal’s co-sponsors. “The attack we saw in Squirrel Hill, the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia,” along with acts of intolerance at a Philadelphia mosque, “are attacks on what makes our commonwealth and our country unique.”

That’s the constitutionally guaranteed freedom to worship as individuals see fit, he noted.

For Dinniman, the proposal is a continuation of the legacy of tolerance and understanding enshrined in the time of William Penn.

“Event after event has unfolded across our commonwealth,” he said. “We have to act on this.”

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.

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