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Houses of worship increase vigilance

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

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Shelia M. Poole
Jennifer Brett, Cox Newspapers

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

Antonio Render, the megachurch's security consultant and a former 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.

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, Tennessee-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 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, South Carolina, 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, Georgia'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 Atlanta, 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."

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