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Keeping Church Safe

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Acts of hostility and violence carried out during religious gatherings have increased at an alarming pace in recent years. How can ministry leaders best promote safety and address related security concerns? To what extent are organizational leaders responsible for proactively addressing potential threats and vulnerabilities? And what resulting liability may arise when these security issues arise?

This article is the first in a series addressing the legal aspects of physical safety and security, starting with informative tools and related guidance for proactively guarding against physical safety and security incidents in faith-based gatherings, including important new guidance issued by the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Subsequent articles will address the above questions in greater detail, such as potential organizational liability, best practices for mitigating risk, and available responsive tools when faced with such threats.

Incidents of concern here may involve the following: harassment of clergy and attendees or members; interference or disruption of worship services; vandalism; arson; assaults; or weapons-related attacks. These incidents threaten religious activities of all faiths. For purposes of this article, related references will be to churches as encompassing houses of worship broadly such as synagogues, mosques, and temples. Much of this information may be applied as well to conferences, charitable events, and other gatherings.

Responsibility and Liability

As a general legal matter, churches are responsible for maintaining a relatively safe environment, to the extent that potentially problematic situations may be foreseeable. Related statistics are certainly concerning; at least twenty-nine states experienced acts of hostility involving churches in 2022-2023.[1] That information should raise attentiveness and awareness for church leaders everywhere.

What degree of responsibility is involved here? In legal terminology, churches are required to exercise reasonable care for the safety of church invitees and licensees. An invitee is an individual who has been invited into the church by either express or implied invitation. A licensee is an individual who may enter or remain at the church at the church’s express or implied consent. Church invitees and licensees often include a wide array of individuals, such as employees, volunteers, members, visitors, and all those entering the church to take advantage of or utilize its services or participate in its offered activities. Failing to exercise reasonable care for the safety of church invitees and licensees can result in various legal claims against the church for personal injury negligence and other causes of action.

Legal responsibility thus includes the identification and mitigation of related risks affecting invitees and licensees, such as the potential for a fire, weather hazards (e.g., slippery sidewalks winter, tornadoes), and building safety issues. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security now recognizes that houses of worship are inherently a national security target. Potential violence and resulting harm thus should be part of a church’s risk analysis.

Often, church leaders recognize these safety and security risks and related issues, but they do not understand how to effectively move forward with action steps to develop an effective safety and security plan. Or they do so with the wrong focus. For example, some churches tend to focus one small area or “slice” of safety and security, resulting in a tunnel vision style approach (e.g., active shooter-related concerns), but not much more. Other churches may go overboard, encouraging (or overtly allowing) people to attend services while armed - in case of potential danger. The myopic approach can leave a church vulnerable to other attacks and/or safety issues; the overboard approach can lead to tragic consequences as well, such as if lethal force is negligently or otherwise wrongfully used. What are church leaders to do?

Available Resources

Good news here! Many current and relevant resources are available on the topic of church safety and security, both from private security companies and government agencies. For example, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security offers a variety of free resources to faith-based communities addressing key church safety and security concerns (see “Protecting Houses of Worship”). Many of these resources are very informative and provide church leadership a broad overview of “church safety and security.”

Notably, in December 2023, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) announced new physical security guidance for faith-based communities. This guidance is designed to help churches and other nonprofits prepare and address these troubling challenges.[2] Unlike many of previous resources, this new guide provides practical and easy to follow advice with actionable steps for churches of all sizes.

Additionally, CISA Protective Security Advisors (PSAs) offers no cost support to faith-based communities in the form of vulnerability assessments, site visits, and training CISA also offers a security self-assessment for churches. For churches that access and follow these resources, vital safety measures may be implemented to protect people and to otherwise mitigate risk.

Developing Church Policies and Procedures

Identify Risks

Churches should be welcoming places, where visitors and other new people can be allowed without any precautions, where high levels of trust can be assumed, and where hurting people can seek refuge. But such a welcoming approach comes with attendant risks, especially if people come who may be seeking to harm others, are mentally unstable, or otherwise pose unknown risks of danger.

Many churches fail to recognize where vulnerabilities exist. It is critical to evaluate potential areas where physical safety and security threats may arise in a given faith-based community, before developing safety and security policies and procedures. Such evaluation may take place in connection with the resources identified above, then proceed with help from appropriate professionals as follows.

As a best practice, churches may seek to consult with an external safety/security professional who is trained and equipped to understand and identify the safety and security risks to churches. Preferably, such a security/safety professional or company is independent from the church. An evaluation should generally review:

a. the Church’s facilities (building location, age, layout), people (employees, volunteers, members, invitees), activities, and current safety and security policies and procedures;
b. relevant hazards, threats, and consequences to the Church and documentation thereof; and
c. the likelihood of risk occurrence.

Once risks are identified, church leaders will have a better understanding of how to customize policies and procedures to their community’s needs, and who within their community (or from outside resources) may be available to assist.

Appoint a Safety Committee

To help oversee safety and security issues and related considerations, a church may form a safety and security committee. Depending upon the church, this committee may consist of staff and/or volunteers, or a combination of both. Generally, once established, safety and security committees should be empowered to develop safety and security guidelines and codified as policies and procedures. The committee may then in turn report to the church’s full board with recommendations and accountability, in turn promoting the board leaders’ proper fulfillment of their stewardship responsibilities.

Establish Volunteer or Paid Safety Personnel

In addition to the safety and security committee, a church may recruit volunteers or staff to serve as a part of a formal “safety team.” These team members are typically charged with enforcing and upholding security and safety policies and procedures.
Given the importance of such safety concerns, all prospective members of any safety team must be thoroughly screened and vetted. Keep in mind that the church will be legally responsible for the action(s) or inaction of its volunteers and employees, as its agents. Each prospective member thus should be screened using consistent and legally compliance criterion. For example, this criterion may include the following requirements:

a. membership or the equivalent for at least six (6) months,
b. successful background check,
c. submission of a written application,
d. submit to an interview by church leadership and the existing safety team (if already established), and
e. meet all eligibility requirements as established by church leadership/safety committee or policy.

Safety teams are not legally required, and churches may use alternative methods and safety/security resources that work for their unique needs. Such options may include utilizing current staff and volunteers to address safety and security concerns (ex. training of ushers to spot safety concerns), partnering with local law enforcement to provide additional patrols, or the hiring off-duty police officers or private security. These options may be appropriate alone or in tandem, depending on a variety of factors including church size, church location, and specific risks that are identified from time to time (e.g., couple involved in acrimonious divorce, person who has made threats, known mental issues affecting a particular congregant).

Follow the Right Safety Protocols

Church leaders should understand their organizations’ capability and commitment to provide any safety and security protections. Although many sample/form safety and security policies are available from very reputable sources such as insurance companies, denominational shared resources, and church safety and security companies, any policy or procedure must be adapted to properly address such concerns for each church – and actually followed.

Keep in mind that such policies and procedures can be used as evidence of negligence in legal proceedings. Indeed, failure to follow the policy or procedure is often viewed as one aspect of potential liability. Consequently, church leaders must understand that church safety and security policies and procedures must be consistently monitored, evaluated, and modified accordingly. Stated differently, church safety and security should be viewed as marathon and not a sprint. So, stay faithful, and do not depart from safety standards once adopted.

Summing Up

Safety and security are inescapably important issues that should be addressed by every house of worship across the country regardless of size, resources, or location. Insurance coverage may be important too, but so too – and perhaps more so – are appropriate safety protocols that mitigate risk, are responsive to potential and evident needs, do not put others at undue risk, and are effective! Addressing both the legal and practical aspects carefully, conscientiously, and consistently serve all well.

[1] See Family Research Council's article.
[2] See the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's article DHS Releases Physical Security Performance Goals for Faith-Based Communities and also CISA's related resource.

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