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In a move that would make John Locke weep, Gov. Sarah Sanders asked the state Legislature in December for $500,000 to fund “Right to Worship Safely” grants. Under this new program, the Arkansas Department of Public Safety awards money to religious entities to pay for security upgrades.

Thirty-one religious entities applied for grants, and six received an award. Grant amounts ranged from $8,065 to $74,449.

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To be eligible, applicants had to meet four criteria:

  • Located in Arkansas
  • Designated as a 501(c)(3) organization
  • “Received an active terrorist threat and/or extremist attack” in the past year
  • Have an established risk

The six organizations that received grants, with the amount each received, were:

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  • Congregation B’Nai Israel, Little Rock – $74,449
  • Chabad Lubavitch, Little Rock – $60,000
  • Congregation Agudath Achim, LIttle Rock – $43,200
  • Subiaco Abbey, Subiaco – $30,805
  • Congregation House of Israel, Hot Springs – $11,273
  • St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Hot Springs – $8,065

Some folks might object to public funds being given to religious causes for any reason. But, if churches, synagogues or other places of worship are receiving credible threats, it would be difficult to argue that protecting a congregation from violence isn’t a worthwhile goal.

Four out of the six winning applicants were Jewish organizations, which makes sense at first glance. The FBI says hate crimes and threats against Jewish people (as well as Muslims) have surged nationwide in the months since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks. Synagogues have been the target of both vandalism and more serious attacks in recent years, including the horrific 2018 mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life congregation that left 11 dead.

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Reviewing the 31 applications that came in, however, it isn’t clear how the criteria established by the state were evaluated or applied. It’s also unclear why these six applicants received grants while four other applicants who cited similar threats did not.

None of the threats cited by the winning applicants were considered credible by law enforcement at the time they were reported. And at Subiaco Academy — the only applicant that suffered an actual attack on its property — law enforcement did not consider the vandalism to be ideologically driven.

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Hoax threats, free speech, suspicious behavior

The grant applications from B’Nai Israel, Chabad Lubavitch, Agudath Achim and House of Israel all reference a bomb threat received on Dec. 8. The same or similar threats went out to many churches, schools and other entities across the country on and around that date, with law enforcement agencies ultimately describing the threats as “not credible” and the FBI saying they were “clearly hoax threats.”

Chabad Lubavitch’s application mentions an incident on Nov. 3, when their security cameras noticed a vehicle “at the entrance to our campus” and the “occupants displayed suspicious behavior.” But public records suggest no one from Chabad Lubavitch reached out to police about the suspicious car at the time. Chabad Lubavitch’s only call to LRPD in the past year was in response to the Dec. 8 bomb-threat email.

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Agudath Achim’s application for a security grant also mentions that protestors came to the synagogue on Dec. 3 “to protest a speaker and program about the Israeli-Hamas war.”

The Subiaco Abbey application pointed to someone vandalizing the altar and stealing two reliquaries in January 2023. (The alleged perpetrator was arrested, and felony charges remain pending in Logan County, though the man was found mentally unfit to proceed and was committed to the Arkansas State Hospital in December.) The church was unlocked and unattended when the man entered. The arrest report for the man who vandalized Subiaco Abbey notes the extensive monetary damage that he caused, but says nothing about terrorism or extremism.

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St. Mary’s application focuses on a March 24 incident during which an alarm went off at 4:49 a.m. Police arrived and found no doors unlocked. The alarm went off again at 6:34 a.m. Police again arrived and found no doors unlocked. The church, however, “feels that an intruder was allowed in the night before during an event” and snuck out when people arrived the following morning. Nothing was stolen or damaged.

The March 24 alarms that St. Mary’s cited in their application do not show up on the call log for that address, according to records provided by Hot Springs Police.

It is unclear how the grant money would prevent or mitigate these threats in the future: No amount of money for extra security will prevent someone from receiving hoax emails or from having suspicious-looking people drive by. And protesting is a right protected by the First Amendment.

While they did not cite all of these incidents in their application for a Right to Worship Safely Grant, Temple B’nai Israel has called on law enforcement a number of times over the past year. According to Little Rock Police records, B’nai Israel called in March to report a strange woman coming into the synagogue and asking questions. They had a false alarm in May, reported a broken window in September, called about the Dec. 8 bomb threat, reported an employee getting loud while being told she was being terminated, and reported an unlocked padlock but nothing missing a couple weeks ago.

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In all of the incidents above that happened in Little Rock, LRPD officers specifically marked “no” where reports asked whether an incident was motivated by “hate” or “bias.” That’s the case even with respect to the bomb-threat emails, adding another confusing wrinkle to this whole thing.

Unclear process

The grant application stated, “Threats will be verified and evaluated by the Arkansas State Police for credibility.” In December, Col. Mike Hagar, head of the state police and DPS, told legislators that the applications would be reviewed by an eight-person committee. The application itself includes a 40-point scoring rubric with categories such as “risk,” “impact” and “facility hardening.”

The DPS press release about the awards said “applications were reviewed by the [Right To Worship Safely] Committee.” But a Freedom of Information Act request for the scoring or evaluation sheets for all of the applications yielded nothing. Cindy Murphy, spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety, replied, “I’m told we have no documents responsive to your request.”

The lack of information on how grantees were chosen leaves questions about those entities that didn’t receive grants.

Temple Shalom in Fayetteville reported receiving the same bomb threat on Dec. 8 as the other synagogues, as well a “bomb and death threat” via their website contact form and via email on Dec. 16. They also said that, in February 2023, the one-mile stretch of the Razorback Greenway that Temple Shalom had adopted was vandalized with neo-Nazi graffiti. They requested $8,400 to cover the cost of off-duty police during worship services and other events. They did not receive a grant.

Chabad of Northwest Arkansas in Bentonville marked “no” on the application when it asked if they had received a terrorist threat or extremist attack in the last year, but they also referenced the same Dec. 8 bomb email. “We received one email threatening bombs in [the] building,” they wrote, “but that email was sent to every congregation in Arkansas and apparently in other states, so it wasn’t specific to us.” They requested $12,000 for a year of extra police presence, but did not receive a grant.

Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in North Little Rock also marked “no” on the application’s question about receiving a threat, but they mentioned an incident in which someone entered the church in the middle of Mass, disrupted the service by shouting and yelling, and had to be escorted from the building. They also wrote, “In the last year, we also had a caller to the church office, who threatened the receptionist, telling her that he was outside the church office with a gun and he was about to start shooting,” which caused the church and the school at the church to “go on lock down” until NLR police were able to clear the campus and make sure there was no threat. The church asked for $112,772 for increased police presence, security cameras, building-access control and perimeter security. They did not receive a grant.

St. Joseph Catholic Church in Fayetteville wrote that the church secretary received a “threatening phone call in 2023 concerning guns,” that they had “incidents where police [were] called due to a threatening individual” being at Mass, and an “incident last year where an individual brought a knife to Mass.” They requested $110,000 for perimeter protection, security cameras, access control to buildings, and security lighting. They did not receive any grant money.

All told, these four applicants requested $243,172 in grant funds and listed threats that were similar to those listed by the six organizations that received grants. Since the Legislature set aside $500,000 for the program and the awarded grants totaled $227,792, these other requests could have been funded.

So what made the six organizations that received grants more deserving? Without evaluations or scoring sheets, it is difficult to say. DPS still has $272,208 to disperse for Right to Worship Safely Grants. Perhaps the next round will provide more clarity on what criteria the state is looking for.