Religious, civil rights leaders urge Congress to take actions to combat domestic terrorism

·Reporter
·4-min read

Representatives from religious and civil rights organizations outlined several specific steps at a Senate hearing Tuesday that members of Congress should take to combat domestic terrorism and violent extremism, including passing legislation to expand and protect voting rights.

“Congress must pass the For the People Act,” Wade Henderson, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told members of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

Enacting the sweeping elections and ethics bill is necessary to “push back against the great white supremacist lie that encouraged the Jan. 6 insurrection and has given rise to” several state vote-restriction measures, Henderson said, referring to the false claims promoted by Donald Trump and other Republican officials that he lost the 2020 election due to widespread voter fraud. Democratic lawmakers from across the country are rallying in support of the For the People Act in Washington this week, urging the Senate to pass the legislation before leaving town for summer recess.

A woman touches a cross at a makeshift memorial for victims outside Walmart, near the scene of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A makeshift memorial in August 2019 for victims outside the Walmart in El Paso, Texas, that was the scene of a mass shooting. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Henderson was among the panel of witnesses who provided the Senate committee with recommendations for how the federal government can address the threat of racially, ethnically, religiously and politically motivated attacks by domestic extremists. Tuesday’s hearing, which coincided with the second anniversary of the mass shooting that killed 23 people in El Paso, Texas, was the first of two that the committee plans to hold on the subject this week.

“In the last few years, our nation has witnessed horrific acts of violence, such as the massacres at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and a shopping center in El Paso that targeted Black, Jewish and Latino Americans,” Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, the committee’s chairman, said in his opening remarks.

A supporter of President Donald Trump carries a Confederate flag as he protests in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Jan. 6, 2021. Demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the a 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
A Trump supporter carries a Confederate flag inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Peters said he fears that these deadly attacks, along with more recent acts of violence targeting the Asian American community as well as the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, “are a signal of something worse to come.”

“If the federal government does not take swift action to address this festering threat, I fear we will see more tragic attacks and lose more lives to domestic violent extremism,” he said.

Mourners look over a make-shift memorial across the street from the Chabad of Poway Synagogue on Sunday, April 28, 2019 in Poway, California, one day after a teenage gunman opened fire, killing one person and injuring three others including the rabbi as worshippers marked the final day of Passover, authorities said. (Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images)
A memorial near the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in Poway, Calif., on April 28, 2019, one day after a gunman killed one person and injured three. (Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images)

Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, echoed these concerns at the hearing, citing the “rising threat” of antisemitism in the United States over the last few years.

Fingerhut requested that Congress increase funding for a federal grant program that provides enhanced security for nonprofits — such as synagogues and faith-based schools or community centers — that are at high risk of attack, and called on Congress to designate religious and other charitable organizations as one of the country’s critical infrastructure sectors, which would make them eligible for additional security resources and a comprehensive risk management plan under the Department of Homeland Security.

An FBI agent stands behind a police cordon outside the Tree of Life Synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018. The shooting was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in recent American history. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)
An FBI agent outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh after a deadly shooting there in October 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Paul Goldenberg, a senior fellow at Rutgers University and former member of the Department of Homeland Security’s advisory counsel, agreed with Fingerhut’s request, saying the lack of adequate resources and cohesive emergency planning to secure faith-based organizations “has definitely become an Achilles' heel.”

“If our houses of worship aren’t critical infrastructure, I'm not sure what is,” Goldenberg said.

In June, the Biden administration unveiled the U.S. government’s first national strategy for combating the threat of domestic violent extremism, which Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has called “the most significant terrorism-related threat impacting the homeland.”

Peters noted that the committee plans to call government witnesses after the August recess to testify about what specifically they are doing to combat this threat.

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