HARRISBURG – June 3, 2019 – Senator Sharif Street and fellow senators announced new legislation to address security needs and confront violence against faith-based organizations and those with diverse members.
Street was joined by state Senators Andy Dinniman, Jay Costa, Judy Schwank, Katie Muth, Maria Collett and Tim Kearney in unveiling the Tolerance, Respect, and Understanding (TRU) Program, Senate Bill 676.
“In all of the world, it was here in Pennsylvania 337 years ago that we made the first statement of religious tolerance, liberty, and freedom of worship,” Dinniman said. “Today, with the rise of violence and hate it is up to us to reaffirm what our founders said with the Great Law of 1682.”
The impetus for the bill emerged from conversations with faith and community leaders from across the Commonwealth following the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting and the special Joint Legislation Session and day of remembrance held earlier this spring.
The purpose of the legislation is twofold:
- To establish a Pennsylvania Nonprofit Security Grant Program to provide security improvements for facilities used by faith-based organizations.
- To support community-based conversations and events that create an atmosphere supportive of tolerance, respect, and understanding.
Parts of the bill were modeled after Pennsylvania’s new School Safety and Community Violence Prevention and Reduction Grant Program (Act 44 of 2018) and its language is reflective of that in the federal Hate Crime Prevention Act.
Schwank, a prime co-sponsor of the TRU Program, said supporting stronger security measures for religious institutions was an “unfortunate reality” of the intolerance problem currently facing Pennsylvania and that nation.
“Everyone deserves to feel safe in their place of worship, no matter what faith that person practices,” she said. “Regardless of your religion or background, we need to fight this together. We need everyone pulling in the right direction.”
Dinniman said the bill was part of a package of legislation designed to prevent violence and fight bigotry. That includes Street’s Senate Bill 71, designed to combat vandalism of sacred spaces such as faith institutions, cemeteries, or memorials, and hate crimes and victims’ rights legislation, currently being drafted by Costa, the Senate Minority Leader.
In his comments, Street highlighted the need to address acts of hate before they escalate.
“The attacks we’ve seen at the synagogue in Squirrel Hill, the desecration of the Jewish cemetery, the desecration of the Al Aqsa mosque and others – they’re attacks on what makes this country unique. They’re attacks on who we are,” he said. “By protecting the rights of freedom of expression of religious minorities, we’re protecting the right to worship of all.”
Costa, also a prime co-sponsor of the TRU Program, noted that in addition to strengthening the physical security of religious or faith-based institutions, the bill also aims to prevent violence by fostering tolerance and understanding through inclusive dialogue and community conversations.
In addition, he said that this year’s projected budget surplus of more than $800 million makes an initial investment of $10 million in the TRU project viable, appropriate, and worthwhile.
“It’s about taking the next step to do what needs to be done by putting available resources to protect our communities and those who want to worship freely in a safe way,” Costa said. “If there’s any year this should be done, this is it. We’re very fortunate to have significant reserves available.”
Dinniman said the bill has already been co-sponsored by multiple senators from both sides of the aisle and that he welcomes bipartisan support from his legislative colleagues to move to bill forward and passed it into law this session.