Montgomery County is giving $700,000 to local houses of worship and religious nonprofits to help them hire part-time security or law enforcement and with other safety measures.
County Executive Marc Elrich said in an interview during an announcement event on Thursday that the county has offered similar assistance before, but for capital costs for religious organizations. The funds announced Thursday are for operational costs.
Elrich and several County Council members said during a news briefing that they plan to keep the $700,000 in next year’s budget, too. They hope it can increase to a higher level in future years, to help combat an increasing number of religion-focused threats around the county.
Rajwant Singh, secretary of the Sikh Center in Rockville, said in an interview that the funds would help his congregation hire part-time security for major gatherings and for services on Sundays and Friday evenings.
The funds would help the center focus its own money elsewhere, such as capital projects. Singh said the center got an estimate of $27,000 to $30,000 to upgrade its security system.
Members are afraid of an attack like one in Oak Creek, Wisc., in 2012. A white supremacist gunman entered a Sikh temple there and fatally shot six members before shooting himself as first responders arrived. A seventh member, a Sikh priest, died of his gunshot wounds in 2020.
“We are always fearful that something like this could happen anywhere,” Singh said. “Because of our turban and beard, we stand out. … [Attackers] think that we don’t belong in America … [and] we sort of stand out because of our religious appearance,” Singh said.
Singh and other officials said Thursday that hate crimes and other incidents are on the rise in recent years countywide.
Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones said in a news briefing that the department’s annual report, which will be released in the coming weeks, will show a high number of threats, hate crimes and other incidents, often at houses of worship.
A broader police report on bias incidents from 2020 showed that although all bias incidents involving race, religion and other factors have leveled off in recent years, there has been an increase since 2015.
That year, there were 63 reported bias incidents. Those include assaults, vandalism or offensive flyers left behind at a public place or house of worship, among others.
In 2020, there were 117 bias incidents, and 31% of those were because of religious reasons (The highest proportion of incidents were race-based at 51%.) Almost all of the religious incidents were directed against Jewish people.
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said in an interview that other funding sources, like federal and state grants, are mostly used for capital projects.
Halber said that replacing a security system is helpful, but the number one deterrent to attacks leading to injuries or deaths at a house of worship is by having an off-duty police officer or some other security presence, at least on a part-time basis.
If organizations pay $65 or $75 an hour for officers, a $16,000 grant — the maximum grant organizations could receive under the program — provides “a lot of coverage,” Halber said.
He added that the grant fund, which is set to continue next year, is an example for other governments countywide. He hopes county officials increase the fund to $1 million in two years.
“People are not cowering in fear. They’re not stopping going about their daily lives and observances,” Halber said. “But I would be lying if I didn’t say people are concerned.”
Jim Stowe, director of the county’s Office of Human Rights, said in a news briefing that if there is vandalism or other violent attacks, religious entities should call the police, and not disturb any possible evidence.
The Office of Human Rights also has a partnership fund to help victims of hate crimes — for instance, up to $2,000 for vandalism incidents and $4,000 for events leading to personal injuries, Stowe said.
“People hate each other because they fear each other. And people fear each other because they don’t know each other,” Stowe said of hate crimes and other incidents. “And people don’t know each other because we’re so often separated from each other. And so we need to try harder … to make sure we know one another as neighbors in this community of ours.”
Steve Bohnel can be reached at email@example.com