With a hand-held radio and gold-colored badge attached to his navy blue shirt, a security officer keeps watch over Sunday worshipers at Grace Church in Eden Prairie.
Like a growing number of churches, Grace has beefed up its security in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in Newtown, Conn., and several killings at houses of worship in recent years. A team of uniformed and undercover public safety officers roam the halls, security cameras are located throughout Grace’s campus, and a full-time public safety manager oversees the sophisticated security system set in place to handle potential gunmen as well as other emergencies.
“It’s really important people feel safe when they come to worship,” said Jeff Kornoelje, pastor of administration at Grace, which has close to 5,000 attendees each weekend for worship services.
“Things are changing in the world. ... We want to be wise to the circumstances out there. To know that we’re prepared and proactive because the last thing we want is if something tragic happens to say, ‘Oh, I wish we would have done that.’ Because then it’s too late.”
The number of shootings at faith-based institutions is on the rise, and congregation leaders are trying to strike a tricky balance — wanting churches to be as safe as possible from violence while still being welcoming places.
At a gun rights rally at the Capitol in January, Republican state Rep. Tony Cornish pointed to Hosanna! Lutheran Church in Lakeville, which has a local police officer in place during worship services.
Mary Carroll, executive director at Hosanna, said the officer is there to handle a range of duties — from helping lost children to assisting in health emergencies — in addition to guarding against violence.
“It’s kind of just being wise,” said Carroll, adding that close to 5,000 people attend weekend worship services. “But also of being realistic. ... Every church has to weigh what they think is the right balance of ... evidencing their trust in the Lord and being wise in the ways of the world.”
Attacks at churches
Carl Chinn, author of the book “Evil Invades Sanctuary,” tracks shootings and other attacks on houses of worship. In 2012, he counted 75 deaths from attacks at faith-based groups. Chinn reports there were 135 “deadly force incidents” last year; and 638 since he starting tracking incidents in 1999. Guns were used in more than half the incidents.
Evangelical Protestant megachurches in particular have sought to add both armed and unarmed guards, more security cameras and other security measures, Chinn says.
Chinn, who visits churches across the country to speak about security issues, recommends houses of worship have “limited points of entry, each monitored by someone during worship and other events.” More and more churches are also using security card and intercom systems to limit access.
“Being an open door to the community, being welcoming to the community does not mean making yourself vulnerable,” said Chinn. “More and more churches realize there’s a distinction between being welcoming and open and being vulnerable.”
Gun laws vary from state to state, and churches also differ on how best to provide security. Some churches have added armed guards, while others ban guns at their worship sites. Some churches are reluctant to talk about their security — particularly the use of firearms — because they don’t want to be viewed as “Fort Knox,” Chinn said.
In 2003, Edina Community Lutheran Church led a legal challenge to the state’s new law allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns with the proper permit. The litigation ended in 2008 when the Minnesota Supreme Court declined to review a lower court decision that churches had the right to ban firearms on all of their religious properties.
Erik Strand, co-pastor at Edina Community Lutheran, which has close to 750 members, said their church posts a sign outside its entrance stating, “Blessed are the peacemakers. Firearms are prohibited in this place of sanctuary.”
“It’s part of our understanding of our faith and our witness to nonviolence and peacemaking,” said Strand. “Our litigation was about our religious freedom. About being able to decide based on our faith what could or could not be brought onto our property.”
When asked, “What do you think is more important? The right of Americans to own guns or to control gun ownership?” white evangelical Protestants, about two-thirds — 68 percent — said it’s more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns, according to a February survey conducted by Pew Research Center. Among black Protestants, 23 percent said it’s most important to protect the right of Americans to own guns. Among the religiously unaffiliated, that number was 45 percent. White Catholics, 44 percent.
Shootings prompt response
Ted Jelen, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who’s written extensively about gun control and religion and politics, notes some churches are re-evaluating the issue following a number of deadly shootings like those at churches in Kansas and Tennessee.
“Some places [houses of worship] will retrench and just try to reaffirm their nonviolent message,” Jelen said. “Other places will do this in an organized fashion. Others will do this in individualized fashion.”
Carl Nelson, president of Transform Minnesota, a network of some 160 evangelical churches, says while more churches are beefing up security in response to deadly shootings, they still strive to be welcoming places.
“Sometimes the armed guard may not be visible, and that may be one of the unique facets of church facilities, is there might be an armed presence. But in order to preserve that sense of welcome and be in a house of peace,” they may not be out in the open, Nelson said.
“We live in a volatile society and any time you have a large gathering of people congregated in a place, you have a risk of some type of terroristic or violent attack. ... Churches can still be welcoming as well as make sure there is a tangible security in place. I think people who attend churches recognize that balance.”