In a year that’s seen a spike in threats to religious institutions, including a rash of bomb threats at dozens of JCCs, the House of Representatives on Monday passed the Protecting Religiously Affiliated Institutions Act of 2017.
The bill (HR 1730), introduced by Rep. David Kustoff (R-Tenn.), one of only two Jews in the House, amends the Church Arson Prevention Act to cover bomb threats to synagogues, mosques, churches or community centers such as the JCCs that were the target of more than 150 bomb threats earlier this year. (Many of the threats were phoned in by a teenager in Israel thought to have emotional problems; he was apprehended in Israel.) The legislation includes protection against threats to property and the obstruction of an individual’s ability to practice their religion. The vote was 402-2.
Rep. Kustoff said in a statement, “Religious tolerance is the bedrock on which our great nation was founded. We must stand united against acts of hate and protect the rights of all Americans to worship freely and without fear.” Other sponsors included Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), Ted Poe (R-Texas), Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Joe Kennedy (D-Mass).
According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States (1,299) has increased by 67 percent in the first three quarters of 2017. These incidents include vandalism, cemetery desecrations and the bomb threats from Israel.
“The bomb threats against Jewish institutions earlier this year traumatized our community institutions and caused widespread fear and anxiety,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the ADL’s CEO. “At a time when the FBI is documenting an increase in religiously motivated hate crimes against Jews and Muslims, this legislation provides law enforcement officials with important new investigative and prosecutorial tools to directly address those threats of violence.”
The ADL statement said, “We will continue to urge Senate action on their version of the legislation and press to have it enacted into law early in 2018.”
The ADL added, even though many of the threats “turned out to be hoaxes,” new data released in November “indicated the number of anti-Semitic incidents remains significantly higher in 2017 compared to 2016.” And in 2016, added Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan, Brooklyn), the hate crimes statistics released by the FBI indicate that anti-Semitic hate crimes increased 20 percent from the prior year. I believe it is not only appropriate but necessary for Congress to strengthen our laws against these types of acts so that no American has to choose between their faith and their safety.”
The Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council praised the passage of the bill, noting that anti-Jewish incidents remain the majority of religious-based hate crimes, while anti-Muslim incidents rose nearly 20 percent over 2015. “These attacks,” said the council, “infringe on the free exercise of religion protected by our Constitution.”