'Like becoming a cop': Idaho houses of worship arm volunteers as threats rise - East Idaho News

‘Like becoming a cop’: Idaho houses of worship arm volunteers as threats rise

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(Idaho Statesman) — In 2014, Kris Moloney was preparing to launch Sheepdog Church Security, a national company that trains volunteer safety and security teams to protect their houses of worship while keeping “faith at the center.” He figured he’d better start by poking around to see whether any other businesses were already doing this kind of work. At the time, he found “almost nothing” online, he told the Idaho Statesman in a video call.

Ten years later, he’s part of a booming industry. “If you just Google ‘church security,’” he said, “there’ll be 100,000 hits.” And there’s demand for expertise on the topic: Moloney’s books, including “Shepherding the Sheepdogs,” “Defending the Flock” and “Active Shooter Mitigation,” have plenty of company in Amazon’s “Christian Books & Bibles” section.

church security books
Kris Moloney’s book on church security, ‘Shepherding the Sheepdogs,’ is one of many books available on the topic. Amazon lists the books under Christian Books & Bibles. | Screenshot

Moloney, who served in the military, worked in law enforcement and ran a safety team at his own church in Minnesota, has now trained over 6,000 people in churches and other houses of worship nationwide. His website and email listserv weave together Christian and security-related imagery, quoting the Bible in articles about defending against violent intruders at churches, using stock images of a handgun sitting atop a Holy Bible, and billing him as a “Protector of the People and Guardian of the Church.”

He’s seen interest in his offerings — from trainings on how to develop safety policies to a manual of safety drills for churches — increase as religious institutions report a growing sense of threat and vulnerability, and churches build out what many call “safety ministries.” These are often a mix of armed and unarmed volunteers ready to respond to emergencies, whether that’s a medical case requiring CPR or an active shooter in the building.

Idaho has seen its own increase in these teams in recent years, as residents “started to see some actions against churches nationwide” and wanted to ensure “people weren’t just wandering in and harming folks,” state Rep. Sage Dixon, a Republican from Ponderay, told the Statesman by phone. In this year’s legislative session, Dixon sponsored a bill that takes effect July 1 to grant these religious organizations’ security teams legal immunity from civil damages.

Constituents who approached him in November to propose the idea had these teams at their churches and “wanted to ensure that if something ever did occur there, that they wouldn’t be held liable for those actions, as they were trying to protect other congregants and themselves within the church.”

Volunteer security teams vary in their makeup, as there is no standardization or regulation governing these teams’ size or approach — though consultants like Moloney advise on best practices in their training programs. This guidance sometimes draws on law enforcement procedures or responses to school shootings, but is tailored to the needs of a house of worship.

For Steve Boyle, the coordinator of the safety team at Canyon Springs Christian Church in Middleton, Moloney’s training was especially valuable, because it focused on security considerations that are specific to churches — for example, the fact that the security teams are made up of volunteers rather than full-time employees, and the need to provide security without making a church seem like an “armed camp.”

“You want it to be open and welcoming and so forth, and yet provide (the) safety and security needed,” he said. “So those of us who do carry firearms, we do so on a concealed basis. We have the protection we need, and yet we’re not ostentatious about it.”

‘Nervous’ about terror, mental illness, domestic violence

For Keith Graves, Hamas’s attack against Israel on Oct. 7 was a clear inflection point in the threat against American houses of worship.

Graves, a former police officer from California, leads his church’s security team in Eagle and runs a website called Christian Warrior Training, which shares security-related news and training in an effort to “empower churches with the knowledge and tools they need to create a safe and secure environment.” Through his work on the site, and its mailing list of 24,000 people, he is in touch with church leaders from all over the country, he said.

In the weeks after Hamas’s attack, the Islamic State group called for its supporters to target Jewish people and synagogues — but churches also saw an uptick in violence, often from people with mental illness, Graves said. He’s seen the number of security teams nationally increase “exponentially” since then.

In response, he organized a group of 30 Treasure Valley churches’ safety teams to regularly meet and share information about threats they’ve encountered, as well as updates they receive from law enforcement.

“Everybody’s nervous about the direction of what’s going on in the world, (and) you have the same thing in the church,” he told the Statesman by phone. He cited concerns about rates of mental illness, domestic violence and other problems that may “spill over” into churches.

The Islamic State group’s threat only “compounded” these fears, as did a February shooting at a Houston megachurch, he said.

Moloney sorts crime against religious institutions into two broad categories: random crime that just happens to occur on the property, like a fight in a church parking lot; and attacks that specifically target an institution. He attributed attacks in that second category in part to a “changing attitude toward churches.”

“When I was a teenager, the churches were essentially unlocked 24/7,” he said. “Even as a kid who was not exactly a very good kid, it never occurred to me to go into a church and do something stupid.”

“Public leaders and politicians used to never say a thing against the church. Now, it’s very common,” he added. “I think as time has gone by, the general respect for religious authority has diminished greatly.” So attacking a church “is no longer off-limits … is what it comes down to.”

The data paints a more muddled picture of the threat. A February study by the Family Research Council, an evangelical activist group and think tank, found that acts of “hostility” against churches more than doubled between 2022 and 2023. Those acts included violent crimes and property-related incidents like vandalism and arson.

Violent attacks against houses of worship, meanwhile, nearly tripled from 2018 to 2019, and in 2022 (after a COVID-19-era dip) had returned to 2019 levels, according to a study by the A-Mark Foundation, which funds investigative journalism.

As for active-shooter events, the latest FBI data shows that in 2022, two of 50 incidents nationwide involved a religiously affiliated location. From 2000 until 2019, there were 15 active-shooter events at houses of worship. (FBI data does not identify which religious group was targeted.)

“There’s been some big ones that I think sometimes, the general public, they latch on to certain things” because of media coverage and the shock value of a vulnerable group being targeted, Shawn Harper, the community services division lieutenant for the Meridian Police Department, told the Statesman in an interview. “So sometimes, what people think is reality is actually not.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which since 2018 has offered grants to help nonprofits — including religious institutions — bolster their security, saw a steep uptick this year in the number of Idaho organizations applying. But Matt McCarter, the office’s Idaho branch chief, said that may be a result of the agency’s outreach rather than a growing sense of threat.

Most of the religious organizations who applied for the grant in Idaho have been Jewish organizations until this year, when five Christian organizations applied, according to data obtained through a public records request. For Jewish communities, the sense of vulnerability is nothing new, though concerns have increased since Oct. 7, Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz of the Chabad Lubavitch of Idaho told the Statesman by phone.

“Generally we take security very seriously — obviously, as a Jewish organization,” he said. “I believe it’s obvious that there is a rise in antisemitism throughout the country, and sadly, the events in the Middle East, as well as our political discourse, have definitely caused a rise in ugly behavior.”

Boise police near Saturday Shabbat service
A Boise police officer maintains a security presence at Boise’s Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel during a Saturday Shabbat service in June. | Sarah A. Miller, Idaho Statesman

Roy Ledesma, the executive director and security manager of Boise’s Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel, said the synagogue has kept a close eye on its security ever since a gunman killed 11 worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018. Since that event, the Boise synagogue has hired Boise Police Department officers to sit outside the building during services and religious school.

“We need presence,” he said.

‘We’re in Idaho – guns are in the church anyway’

Moloney acknowledges that some congregations, especially those that lean left politically, will bristle at the idea of having a security team — or at least, at what they think that will mean: “cameras, barbed wire fence, working dogs … that’s the extreme people imagine.”

Addressing those who want to start a team at their own house of worship, his website offers suggestions for how to ease “hesitant” congregations into the idea of relying on armed volunteers.

“Some of those people that are against it, we can … move them slowly towards the idea of having armed safety team members,” he said. “Let’s start with medical. Let’s start with fire safety … something that’s not going to disturb anyone at all.”

Starting there allows a new team to build credibility and trust with a congregation, he said, in preparation for taking security “to the next level.”

“At some point, we’re going to have to have the discussion of violent shooters,” he said. “We have to.”

Graves sometimes hears pushback from those who oppose the idea of bringing guns into a house of worship, but he views that as something of a sunk cost.

“You’ve got to realize we’re in Idaho — guns are in the church anyway,” he said.

If anything, he said, more formalized teams offer a chance to “professionalize” security, training members “just like we train law enforcement” to think through their role in responding to an attack in a more “measured” way.

Graves said he regularly hears from church leaders who believe that, as Christians, they should be pacifists, reliant on God to protect their congregations. But some express changing perspectives “because they’re nervous” about the risk of attack, he said.

“Some people say, ‘You’re a Christian — you should be a pacifist,’” he said. “And there are other people who say, ‘Look at (the Gospel of) Luke: Jesus said, ‘Sell your cloak and buy a sword.’”

“One of the things I like mentioning is OK, yes, God is going to protect us, but you still look both ways before you cross the street,” he said. “God is going to look out for you, but he also gives you these tools to help you watch out for yourself.”

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