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Churches Rethinking Security In The Wake Of Sutherland Springs Shooting

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The mass shooting on Sunday has some congregations rethinking how they approach security. Should doors always be kept open to anyone, or is it time to post armed guards? Chas Sisk of member station WPLN in Nashville reports that religious leaders have actually been thinking about this for a long time.

CHAS SISK, BYLINE: As at many churches, Wednesday night is fellowship night at the Brentwood Hills Church of Christ.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Come on, Michael (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey, Bob (ph).

SISK: As many as 300 worshippers are milling through the church gymnasium. A line of women in autumn themed aprons serve spaghetti, salad and sweet tea to retirees, children and parents fresh from work. They're here for a quick meal before heading off for Bible study. Back in a conference room, two volunteers, both former law enforcement, are hammering out how to keep these people safe.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What I'm proposing is that we put together the options to present to the elders.

SISK: In recent years, this church has put in security cameras and started locking doors. A traffic officer keeps watch during services. Now it's discussing hiring a second officer to patrol the grounds. They've also talked about banning large bags, says Jonathan Seamon, Brentwood Hills' executive minister.

JONATHAN SEAMON: I hate to say we've come to that, but we're just trying to do what is the best to make the place safe for those that are there.

SISK: Brentwood Hills has been having these security discussions for more than a decade, prompted by previous shootings. Events like Sunday's attack in Sutherland Springs have renewed the urgency much as the clergy sex abuse scandal caused many churches to add background checks and other safeguards for people who work with children.

SEAMON: Each time there's one of these episodes, it brings you to add a few more things to the table.

SISK: Houses of worship have long been targets for violence for reasons ranging from the ideological to the personal. The challenge is how to create spaces that are harder to attack without turning them into fortresses. In Nashville, many churches turn for advice to a Jewish house of worship, Congregation Micah. Celia Lerch is the executive director.

CELIA LERCH: I think most synagogues unfortunately have been thinking about it for maybe hundreds of years. It's always on the forefront of our thoughts and our policies. And really what we want to try to do is create communities that are very safe and very secure but yet still welcoming.

SISK: Perhaps the thorniest question is guns. For some congregations, nonviolence is a bedrock principle. And there are practical risks like lawsuits and accidental shootings. But many pastors also feel a duty to protect, says Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's policy arm.

RUSSELL MOORE: I don't think there is a gun control policy outlined in scripture. There is a commitment to human life and to the protection of human life, but I think Christians can disagree on what the specific policies ought to be to get there.

JEFF BROWN: The call to love my neighbor in a risky way to me is a stronger priority than the call to defend myself or protect myself.

SISK: Jeff Brown is the lead minister at the Woodmont Hills Church. Just up the road, it, too, has been revisiting its safety policies. Brown says some members of his church's safety team are armed contrary to his own preference.

BROWN: You know, there's a fine line. And those two priorities are going to drive that conversation. And we want to be welcoming. We want to be wise.

SISK: A dilemma that houses of worship increasingly are being forced to wrestle with. For NPR News, I'm Chas Sisk in Nashville, Tenn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chas joined WPLN in 2015 after eight years with The Tennessean, including more than five years as the newspaper's statehouse reporter.Chas has also covered communities, politics and business in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. Chas grew up in South Carolina and attended Columbia University in New York, where he studied economics and journalism. Outside of work, he's a dedicated distance runner, having completed a dozen marathons