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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Michael Popejoy
May 31, 2016
Even to the most radical domestic or foreign terrorist, it is clear that it would be impossible to kill everyone who doesn’t agree with a particular world view, political ideology or religious belief. But it is sufficient to keep everyone on edge, looking over their shoulder in a state of heightened vigilance. We are experiencing heightened social tension, widespread community mistrust and a perceived need for excessive security. Recently, I observed startling events in my local community, which have led me to ask the question: has terror won??
I recently received a free ticket to see Pastor Joel Osteen at the Amway Center in downtown Orlando, Fla. What I found upon arrival was startling. Surrounding the building were more police cars than I thought the city of Orlando actually had. Alongside police was about half of the fire department and probably every ambulance in the county.
Upon entering the building, the tension from security was evident. Everyone had to pass single file through a metal detector. Armed uniformed security officers scanned everyone with handheld detectors while other officers searched bags and purses. As soon as I got past that gauntlet, I saw more than two dozen uniformed, armed city police officers. This level of security is usually reserved for the president, visiting heads of state or maybe the Pope. But not for a small town preacher from Texas.
During the next few weeks, I began an informal examination of local church security and found uniformed, armed police officers serving as door greeters, patrolling the church lobby and watching everyone entering the sanctuary. Yes, for years I have seen officers in patrol cars directing traffic around big church parking lots before and after services. But it was a shock to see them for the first time in force inside the church.
Upon further inquiry, I also discovered many churches are now requiring criminal background checks and drug screenings on any attendee applying for church membership and service to the community through church-sponsored programs. I thought possibly this level of screening would only be for those who work in children’s ministry or in the money counting room where tithe and offering money is collected. Churches rake in the cash every Sunday; lots of it! However, churches are now screening everyone.
The biggest problem with this practice is the collection of sensitive information for criminal background checks. It is not just limited to your name, address and phone number. It also includes addresses for the past 10 years, Social Security number, birthplace, birth date, employer and income. This information is exactly what someone would need to steal identities. Once computer hackers find out churches now have such detailed information in their lightly secured church computers, let the hacking begin.
Churches are requiring potential members to sign “hold harmless statements.” If your identity is stolen, you will not hold the church or the contracted private investigation firm doing criminal background checks, liable for losses. It is only a matter of time before losses occur to people who just wanted to join a local church and serve their community.
Although “hold harmless statements” may protect churches from potential litigation, are they committing fraud when they fail to inform new applicants about this requirement until after they complete the mandatory pre-service training? Every Sunday, pastors passionately invite guests at every service to join as a member. To do so, they must attend the four- or five-week orientation and pre-service classes. Then at the end of the final week—when it is about time to become a formal member—the church provides the form, which requests tons of personal information for the criminal background investigation.
A quick check on the Internet reveals there may be a reason for this level of security. In the U.S., there have been 18 church shootings in the past 11 years. Is there sufficient danger to warrant such levels of security? Does everyone attending church now feel more secure with police in the building or is it just the appearance of security that makes everyone feel safer?
It is apparent that terror has won when local community churches engage in this level of security and invade the personal privacy of potential members despite risk of identity theft. What’s next America?
Author: Michael W. Popejoy, M.B.A., Ph.D., M.P.H., M.S., FRSPH is cross trained with his Ph.D. in public administration and the M.P.H. in public health from a CEPH accredited school of public health. He also teaches both graduate public administration and graduate public health. Email: [email protected]