Security and Religious Facilities: Providing Safety and Sanctuary

Dec. 6, 2006

Freedom of religion is a fundamental right in a free, democratic, and multi-cultural society. In the current global climate, all religious facilities must, at some point, deal with threats of terrorism, crime, and workplace violence. On major holidays, whether Christmas and Easter for Christians, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the Jewish calendar, and other holy days for Islam and major denominations, attendance by hundreds or thousands of people on a single day in one religious building are common.

These circumstances, along with the dynamics of location, community demographics, religious affiliations, and geopolitical conflicts that may translate to local safety issues, all reflect a range of security threats that can potentially impact any religious facility, regardless of denomination. At a time of heightened world violence and hate crimes directed toward religious groups and their leaders and symbolic icons, protecting the public in privately owned religious facilities presents a serious global security challenge.

Religious facilities and related community institutions form essential bonds within the fabric of society. Houses of worship are designed to be sacred gathering spaces that can accommodate traditional ceremonies and rites of passage, from communions, bar mitzvahs, and weddings to daily and weekly prayer services. Religious organizations increasingly provide full-time or after-school education, social services, and outreach programs that may allow members and non-members to participate.

“Because of the open nature of most religious institutions and the range of constituents, employees, and visitors using them, designing secure facilities must include their selected user participation in an overall security plan. Without an integrated plan, even the most well-designed facility will be unable to thwart and fully recover from a security breach. All religious institutions and related community centers will benefit from preventive, proactive information,” says Steven C. Sheinberg, associate director of legal affairs for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in New York City. The ADL has been at the forefront of providing information to Jewish institutions for dealing with increased global security concerns facing this community.

As for any facility, understanding the threats and identifying vulnerable situations is the first step to creating an effective security program. Integrating design, use of technology, and operations, which are the policies and procedures set forth by owners and facility managers, will offer far more protection than prayer alone for protecting sacred spaces.

Roles of Lay Leadership in Security Planning
Many design and construction professionals often volunteer to serve on building committees at their church or synagogue. “As essential (and often overlooked) security element for religious institutions is the role of the lay leadership in creating a more secure environment,” says Deborah Lauter, director of ADL’s civil rights division. An included and involved leadership can:

- Explain to congregants why security is important and how security is consistent with an open and welcoming institution.

- Set an example of security procedure compliance for all congregants and constituents to follow.

- Develop critical relationships with local law enforcement.

- Allocate money and resources to building and security maintenance and upgrades.

- Ask congregants to be the eyes and ears of security.

Additionally, security planners and managers must understand that many religious institutions tend to have a rainy-day security approach. They allow systems and procedures, including basic things like locking doors, to lapse when there is no immediately perceived threat, and then overcompensate when a threat emerges. Planners and managers should help the leadership of these institutions understand the need to maintain their security readiness, Lauter adds.

Transparent security - utilizing techniques invisible to the public eye - are appropriate for religious as well as public and civic facilities. In his role as building committee chair for the renovation and expansion of Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation in Long Island, NY, Burton L. Roslyn, AIA, Roslyn Consultants LLC, Westbury, NY, is mindful of the balance between creating an open, inviting, and spiritually uplifting environment and the need for security in a suburban setting. “We chose to consider the environmental impact on our congregants as a design priority, and there are no visible security measures. However, we installed a sophisticated camera and communications system, which protects our facility and its users. With this approach, we hope to have struck the right balance between these two often conflicting needs,” says Roslyn.

Places of Worship a Unique Security Challenge
In Israel, protecting places of worship and religious community centers for three major faiths has long been a security concern, especially since many of these sites are important historic buildings and tourist attractions. According to international security consultant Uzi More, CEO of MIP Security in Israel, “Many mosques, temples, synagogues, and churches are centuries old, and it’s often unacceptable or even illegal to alter their structures with the addition of physical security elements, even if the desire is to better protect the building and its occupants. The welcoming and open nature of these buildings and campuses is at odds with the levels of security that are often required to meet the high threat levels that are common around such facilities in some parts of the world.”

It is often necessary to provide innovative security solutions for protecting these facilities, says More. The buildings are often empty for hours or days at a time, and then there is a sudden influx of hundreds of people for prayers or an event at a time and day that is well known to an assailant. Some of these people may be members or known to the community, whereas others will be members’ guests or even complete strangers. It’s typical for the entrance and screening facilities to have to allow for the smooth entry of up to 2,000 people within half an hour.

More and his team were recently faced with this unusual combination when they were commissioned to find protection solutions for a 200-year-old synagogue that holds 1,500 people during a few days of the year during the Jewish high holy days, but only a handful of people on a daily basis. “It would have been extremely complex to blast-protect such an old structure (and prohibitively expensive), so the focus was shifted from physical protection to an analysis of the patterns and flows of people into the building. In cooperation with the local police force, it was finally decided to focus on access to the building at peak times and to block roads providing access to the building during those key days in the year,” More says.

Where physical protection is necessary, places of worship often provide challenges to security planners due to their unique architectural features. “The most common feature is often the extensive use of stained glass, which is highly susceptible to fragmentation, but does not lend itself to standard methods of blast protection. An example of the extent of the damage caused by this type of window was clearly seen in the Istanbul synagogue attack in 2003, where a 500-pound explosive car bomb was used. Non-standard protection methods for stained glass include a variety of non-contact solutions,” More explains.

Many older buildings do not completely comply with modern safety standards, and this is particularly prevalent in temples, churches, synagogues, and mosques. More continues: “In these scenarios, it is important to carefully review emergency and evacuation procedures, and determine the appropriate procedure for each relevant threat scenario. The effectiveness of emergency procedures determines the ability to rapidly evacuate a large crowd of people from a single room or area. This was seen recently in Iraq in 2005, where panic quickly turned to a stampede for which the security forces were unprepared and evacuation procedures nonexistent.”

More’s firm has been extensively involved in the protection of places of worship and has undertaken retrofit projects and the full security design for new buildings worldwide. His experience has shown that the two most important factors in the security and protection of such buildings are the perimeter line and entrance operation. “Almost all attacks against these targets have occurred from the perimeter line (shooting, hand grenades, car bomb, or vandalism) or at the entrances. Protecting these facilities is highly challenging, since large numbers of people are expected to arrive within a very short period and many of them are unknown to the community. With the right expertise, it is possible to design a pleasant and secure environment without compromising the architectural design features of houses of worship,” he says.

Sacred Spaces No Longer Off Limits to Crime
Heightened security has affected religious practices as much as it has influenced the business, government, and transportation sectors. Churches and houses of worship often remained open all night to offer the traditional form of sanctuary to those in trouble and need, as well as to those who wished to pray at their own convenience or for unplanned troubled times. But, added security has forced houses of worship to keep regular business hours or remain open from sunrise to sunset and then lock the doors, observes Orlando T. Maione, AIA, principal, Maione Associates, Stony Brook, NY.

“Some societies around the world no longer consider a religious building as a holy place that is off limits to violent attacks, vandalism, and theft. For centuries, religious icons were made of the most precious materials and adorned in reverence and homage with expensive fabrics, fine metals, and jewels. Today, a congregation rarely sees those objects d’art; they are usually locked away or secured behind thick protective glass cases, as in a museum. The few remaining pieces are usually inexpensive reproductions whenever possible,” Maione adds.

To minimize vandalism and theft, he says, houses of worship have often replaced their sculptured, museum-quality statuary and religious symbols on building exteriors with less-expensive, mass-produced, easily replaced copies. Where instances of repeated vandalism and theft have occurred, the accessibility of smaller shrines around the exterior of a religious building or complex have also been moved further away from public view and have become more structurally protected (when they have not been removed altogether).

Churches can also present crimes of opportunity by being considered potential sources of easy money. “For generations, a small tin box, screw mounted to the wall, held donations to the poor. Known as the ‘poor box,’ this old tradition has given way to engineered, secure mini-safes attached to the building and typically under constant visual and video observation. They are often wired with expensive security systems that far exceed the value of funds usually collected in the poor box,” Maione says. Nevertheless, eliminating potential risks by moving and securing places where money and valuables are stored, and increasing surveillance, can reduce opportunities for theft and vandalism in unattended spaces.

Religious structures are no longer revered by society or the neighborhoods that have evolved around them, Maione observes, especially as older, ethnic areas in American cities evolve and become home to new generations of immigrants with their own religious traditions and cultures.

Many religious institutions have had their valuable stained glass windows removed, sealed over, or sandwiched between protective sheets of plastic or manufactured safety glass, permanently affecting the play of light in and around the structures, Maione observes. This preserves the beauty and value of glass, and also serves as a security feature. In the event of an explosion or blast that causes glass to shatter, flying shards of glass pose a serious hazard to building occupants and can result in fatalities. Using laminated glass, or effectively laminating stained glass elements between two protective layers, will minimize the likelihood of shattered glass pieces flying into a building or occupied space.

“There are some parishes and synagogues that hire their own security guards to protect attendees and their expensive accessories, such as furs and jewelry, as well as the displayed valuable artifacts on special occasions. Large churches, like New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, have their own security to regulate crowds and spot-check bags and purses on high-attendance days. There is also more security around holidays when more money is donated during services than on a normal Sunday,” Maione adds.

Religious and lay leaders must collaborate with security and design professionals to develop appropriate visible and transparent security measures that can be rapidly increased as needed based on events and community concerns. Above all, maintaining the powerful experience of worshipping in sacred spaces should remain paramount to all involved in protecting these facilities and those who use them.

Anti-Defamation League, (coauthors Steven C. Sheinberg and Morris S. Casuto), Chapter 17, “Religious Institutions and Community Centers,” Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design, Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA, ed., McGraw-Hill, 2004. This comprehensive, nondenominational analysis of threats and vulnerabilities provides a step-by-step approach to security design, technology, and operational solutions for religious facilities, from theft, hostages and crime, to suicide bombers and weapons of mass destruction.


-Anti-Defamation League (ADL)

-ADL’s Security Awareness

-Faith & Form: Journal of the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art, and Architecture (IFRAA)

-MIP Security, Israel

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