Metro ATL houses of worship were wary even before synagogue slaughter

On Sunday night, Channel 2's Michael Seiden visited the Congregation Shearith Israel where religious leaders from all different backgrounds paid tribute to the victims.

At New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, security begins in the parking lot.

Antonio Render, the megachurch’s security consultant and a former DeKalb County police officer, said outside security guards are trained to look for unusual behavior or unattended packages and bags.

“The church is God’s house, but we still have to put thought into security measures to make sure we are protected,” he said. “This is just what is going on now. When I went to church as a young man, our churches would leave the doors open. You could go in a church 24 hours a day. We never thought anyone would come in and cause bodily harm to anyone. You can’t do that now.”

The issue of safety at houses of worship is back in the headlines following Saturday’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. But many clerical leaders have been re-evaluating and beefing up security for some time now. They all should, says Jimmy Meeks, a former police officer who now leads security seminars at houses of worship.

“What does surprise me is it doesn’t happen every day, because of the degree of anger among so many people,” he said of the Pittsburgh attack, which left 11 people dead and others injured. Suspect Robert Bowers is charged with 11 counts of criminal homicide and 13 counts of ethnic intimidation.

“We lost 114 people last year. That’s a new record in deaths on faith-based properties,” Meeks said.


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Meeks was leading a security seminar over the weekend when he learned of the Pittsburgh massacre. His main advice in the wake of this and other attacks: be vigilant and have armed security in place.

“As heaven is my witness, I am not a gun fanatic,” Meeks said. “But if you don’t have armed security, you don’t have a chance against these armed individuals when they come in to kill.”

Georgia law says licensed holders may carry their guns into a church or religious building, but only with permission from the church.

“I believe every church is free to do what they need to do within the realm of the law,” Meeks said. “Having a church full of armed people, that’s not necessarily a good thing.”

An armed response may have kept a September 2017 shooting in Tennessee at a Nashville-area church from being more deadly. Emanuel K. Samson is accused of killing one person and injuring several others at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ. He accidentally shot himself after he was confronted by an armed member of the congregation, the Nashville Tennessean reported.

Meeks noted that not all mass shootings at houses of worship were motivated by religious enmity.

Devin Patrick Kelley quarreled with his mother-in-law and sent her threatening text messages before showing up at her Sutherland Springs, Texas, church in November 2017. He fatally shot 26 people and turned the gun on himself after a former NRA firearms instructor who lived near the church exchanged fire, then chased Kelley down the road.

“In Pittsburgh it was anti-Semitic,” Meeks said, referring to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. “In Sutherland Springs, it was anti-mother-in-law. Hate is hate.”

Several Georgia police departments offer active-shooter training or advice to churches. Some churches contract with private security agencies or invest in state-of-the-art security systems.

One local church doesn’t allow bags larger than a backpack, while others urge leaders to keep a cellphone handy in case they need to call 911.

Edward Ahmed Mitchell, executive director of the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said every mosque has a different level of security. Some keep their doors locked at all times, requiring people entering to use a key or pass code. Others have armed guards.

Sometimes, though, providing heavy security can seem at odds with why churches, mosques and temples exist in the first place.

“The problem is that houses of worship, by definition, are supposed to be open to the public,” Mitchell said. “We’re not government buildings. We’re not courthouses. We want to be warm and welcoming. We have to balance taking as many precautions as possible without losing that welcoming atmosphere.”

Three years ago, for instance, nine members of the historically black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., were shot to death while at Bible study.

The gunman, Dylann Roof, sat among them for about an hour before opening fire.

He later told police that he "almost didn't go through with it because everyone was so nice to him," sources told NBC News.

Parishioners at Marietta’s First United Methodist Church pass Marietta Police Department cruisers on their way into Sunday services each week. The church’s recent capital campaign — the sort of thing that usually focuses on new carpet, fresh coats of paint and other infrastructure improvements — included a raft of new security elements.

At The Temple in Midtown, security is vigilant but subtle.

“I won’t be sharing much, if anything. That would be comprising security,” said executive director Mark Jacobson. The Temple was bombed 60 years ago this Oct. 12. Jacobson did say that measures are in place “to make sure our members and visitors are safe when they come.”


Mass murder is defined by four or more killings occurring during the same incident, usually at the same location, noted Carl Chinn, president of Faith-Based Security Network Inc.

“With this definition applied to faith-based organizations operating on U.S. soil, it had never happened in 187 years of American liberty,” he said. “Since (the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing) in 1963, there have now been 15. Of the 113 murder victims in those attacks, 59, or over 52 percent, were killed in the last 6 years.”

Here are details on the 15 mass murders associated with faith-based organizations he noted, beginning with Birmingham:

Sept. 15, 1963. Birmingham, Ala.: Four girls killed at 16th Street Baptist Church.

June 22, 1980. Daingerfield, Texas: Five killed at First Baptist Church.

Aug. 9-10, 1991. Waddell, Ariz.: Nine killed at Wat Promkunaram Buddhist Temple.

March 10, 1999. Gonzales, La.: One victim killed at home, followed by three related killings at New St. John Baptist Church.

Sept. 15, 1999. Fort Worth, Texas: Seven killed at Wedgwood Baptist Church.

March 12, 2005. Brookfield, Wis.: Seven killed at Living Church of God.

Aug. 28, 2005. Sash, Texas: Two killed at Sash Assembly of God Church, followed by two related killings down the road.

May 21, 2006. Baton Rouge, La.: Four killed at Ministry of Jesus Christ Church, followed by a related kidnapping; that victim was killed elsewhere.

Oct. 2, 2006. Lancaster County, Penn.: Five girls killed at West Nickel Mines School, an Old Order Amish school.

Dec. 9, 2007. Arvada and Colorado Springs, Colo.: Two killed at Youth With A Mission-Arvada and two killed at New Life Church.

April 2, 2012. Oakland, Calif.: Seven killed at faith-based Oikos University.

Aug. 5, 2012. Oak Creek, Wis.: Six killed at Sikh Temple.

June 17, 2015. Charleston, S.C.: Nine killed at Emanuel AME Church.

Nov. 5, 2017. Sutherland Springs, Texas: 26 killed at First Baptist Church.

Oct. 27, 2018. Pittsburgh: 11 killed at Tree of Life Synagogue.


The FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program breaks down religion-based hate crimes. These are from 2016, the most recent year for which the data is available.

Of the 1,584 victims of anti-religious hate crimes:

▪ 54.4 percent were victims of crimes motivated by their offenders’ anti-Jewish bias.

▪ 24.5 percent were victims of anti-Islamic (Muslim) bias.

▪ 4.1 percent were victims of anti-Catholic bias.

▪ 3.0 percent were victims of bias against groups of individuals of varying religions (anti-multiple religions, group).

▪ 2.5 percent were victims of anti-Other Christian bias.

▪ 1.9 percent were victims of anti-Eastern Orthodox (Russian, Greek, Other) bias.

▪ 1.4 percent were victims of anti-Protestant bias.

▪ 0.8 percent were victims of anti-Hindu bias.

▪ 0.5 percent were victims of anti-Mormon bias.

▪ 0.5 percent were victims of anti-Sikh bias.

▪ 0.4 percent were victims of anti-Atheist/Agnostic bias.

▪ 0.2 percent were victims of anti-Jehovah’s Witness bias.

▪ 0.1 percent were victims of anti-Buddhist bias.

▪ 5.7 percent were victims of bias against other religions.