Local religious leaders gathered Thursday morning in Baton Rouge to learn about protecting their congregations against both natural disasters and human attacks following recent violence against worshipers around the world — from the St. Landry Parish church burnings to the mass shooting at a New Zealand mosque that killed dozens of people.
"All our houses of worship are under attack. This hatred is not focused in just one area," said Robin McCullough-Bade, executive director of the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge. "All of us should be appalled. … We need to find ways, as people of faith, to support each other."
The federation helped organize Thursday's training program for religious leaders in conjunction with the Mayor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. It was held at the Louisiana Capital Area Red Cross offices and attracted several dozen participants.
The training covered a wide range of topics, from hurricanes and floods to arsonists and active shooters.
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"You hope that when people come to worship, they would be in a safe place," McCullough-Bade said, referencing several recent attacks including deadly shootings at synagogues in both California and Pittsburgh. "There are just no words that can describe this hatred … but these are the times that we are in."
Sgt. Bryan Taylor of the Baton Rouge Police Department said officers "can't be everywhere all the time" so it's important for the general public to educate themselves on how to react in an active shooter situation. Such knowledge could save lives in the moments before law enforcement arrives on scene.
"If running doesn't work and hiding doesn't work, you have one choice: to stay there and fight," Taylor said. He advised that people take simple steps such as locating exits and hiding places ahead of time. Taylor added that he carries a gun when he attends church "because if some coward comes in and wants to do something bad to innocent people, I'm gonna stop them."
The question of whether congregants should be encouraged to arm themselves has risen to the forefront in the wake of recent attacks. Louisiana law gives religious leaders the discretion to allow the practice as long as the person has a concealed carry permit and has completed additional tactical training that specifically addresses places of worship.
Many local congregations started having those discussions after the November 2017 shooting that left 26 people dead inside a Texas church. The shooter in that attack appears to have acted out of anger toward his wife and her relatives who attended the church.
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Taylor said religious leaders should be aware of the threats that can result from domestic issues erupting in public, and contact law enforcement if they see signs of domestic abuse among members of their congregations.
A recent proposal would expand the state's "stand your ground" law to protect people who use deadly force in houses of worship. State legislators will consider making that change during the current legislative session. The law now applies only to houses, businesses and vehicles.
The training also addressed protecting against arson, which organizers said was added to the program in light of the St. Landry fires earlier this year that destroyed three historic black Baptist churches before the suspected arsonist was arrested.
Baton Rouge Fire Department spokesman Curt Monte said congregations should follow some common sense guidelines, such as installing smoke detectors, keeping doors and windows locked, and removing materials that could be used for kindling.
"We all do our best to have faith and bring God into our lives and pass that on to our children, but unfortunately that isn't the case for everyone. When someone burns down a place of worship, it doesn't just burn a building — it burns your soul," Monte said. "This is the time and the world we live in. We need to be prepared."
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