Threats, Violence, and Houses of Worship: How to Respond?

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Churches and other religious institutions are supposed to be places of peace and refuge.  Yet they inherently draw people with deep hurts, brewing anger, and even unstable mental illnesses.  What should responsible church leaders do when faced with a person who threatens violence or otherwise poses a danger to others? 

Consider the following scenario, recently brought to our firm’s attention by a church leader seeking guidance:  The potentially dangerous person is a former employee who is upset about his job termination.  He came to a church meeting, accosted the church leader, and then physically attacked her.  Other church leaders quickly stepped up and removed him from the premises.  Since then, he has threatened to come back and hurt others.  It is difficult to discern whether he really means to follow through with this threat, but it is clear that they now must address the question of what to do next – to protect both the victim and other church attendees who could be in danger.  Here are several specific guidelines for this and similar circumstances involving potential physical harm.

1.         Keep in mind that religious institutions normally operate on private property.  Accordingly, they enjoy the legal right to exclude persons from their property, as they may determine within their discretion.

2.         Religious institutions may be held liable for violence that is “reasonably foreseeable” and results in actual harm.  So take due precautions.

3.         If it appears that a threatening or otherwise potentially dangerous person is going to try attending a worship service or other meeting, call the police.  In other words, don’t take a chance.

4.         Use ushers strategically.  Not only can ushers help people feel welcome, they also can serve as the eyes and ears for brewing trouble.  Station them at open doors, make sure they are trained well, and have them work in pairs. If anyone needs to be escorted out, try to do so without touching them or causing any disturbance.

5.         As a corollary to the above point, be ready to use video cameras.  It’s amazing to see how well people behave when they know they are being filmed.  In this case, an ounce of prevention is most certainly worth a pound of cure!  And the video footage itself may be quite helpful later.  Be careful, though, about any audiotaping – several state laws expressly prohibit it without consent.

6.         Implement security measures for office hours and other facility access during non-worship times, such as locks, surveillance cameras, and intercoms.  Better safe than sorry.

7.         Be extremely careful about publicity or announcements regarding a potentially dangerous person and any related incidents.  Making statements about a person’s violent tendencies, mental condition, or behavioral issues may lead to that person filing a defamation claim against the speaker and/or the religious institution.  So as a general rule, disclose sensitive information on a “need to know” basis and report only verifiable facts.  

8.         Watch out for social media commentary and email frenzies.  While not all congregants can be constrained in this regard, the religious institution should at least have confidentiality and media use restrictions that would apply to disgruntled leaders or employees. 

9.         Consider asking an off-duty police officer for assistance with ongoing potentially problematic situations.  Ideally, such person would be a member of the congregation or otherwise supportive of it.  (But avoid taking matters into one’s own hands and allowing any armed persons who are not fully trained and equipped for dangerous situations.)

10.       In the event of actual violence or other troubling incidents, file a police report for assault, battery, and/or criminal trespass. 

11.       You may need to contact the organization’s insurance company to file a claim.  Better yet, before any trouble arises, check on the sufficiency of the organization’s liability and property damage insurance coverage.

12.       In extreme cases of potential physical harm, verbal assaults, and/or other combative behavior, it may be appropriate to seek a restraining order through court action.