Security funds go to Jewish groups

Videotaping of school sparked Ehrlich's concern

September 22, 2004|By Andrew A. Green and Frank Langfitt | Andrew A. Green and Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

Pointing to the videotaping of a Jewish school in Baltimore last year by a Saudi national, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced a $100,000 state Homeland Security grant for a Jewish day school in Montgomery County yesterday and plans to award $130,000 more to Jewish institutions in Baltimore this week.

The Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, which has 1,500 kindergarten-through-12th-grade students in Rockville, received the first grant. Tomorrow, the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in Park Heights is slated to get $30,000, and the Jewish Community Center of Baltimore is to receive $37,000 for its Owings Mills campus and $63,000 for its location in Park Heights.

"This is an unprecedented level of cooperation between the state government and the Jewish community on matters of security," said Ron Haller, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

A spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a watchdog group in Washington, said the grant may be the first of its kind. Joe Conn said spending federal money on permanent security improvements to a religious-related institution could raise "a significant constitutional question" about church-and-state division.

In the early 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public funds could not be used to maintain religious schools, he said. Conn acknowledged that paying for security is not the same as paying for, say, a new roof. But he also said that by paying for permanent improvements, the government could be eroding what he described as the church-state wall.

"Where do you draw the line?" Conn said. "If you are a taxpayer, should your money be used to make permanent improvements to a house of worship or a religious school? If it's truly security measures, the courts might say that doesn't advance religion, but that's a close question."

Jonathan Cannon, head of the Smith School, declined to specify how the grant would be spent. Typically, such money could be used for security cameras, reinforcing exterior doors and installing key card locking systems.

"This is part of proactive, preventative security," he said.

The money is drawn from the State Homeland Security Grant Program, which was created by Congress two years ago and provided $39 million for Maryland last year.

Federal regulations do not explicitly permit giving money to nonprofit organizations such as the Smith School, said Jim Pettit, spokesman for the state Office of Homeland Security. But funds are typically spent on critical public infrastructure, such as bridges, roads, tunnels and airport facilities, he said.

Security at Jewish institutions became a concern in Baltimore last October, when a parent at the Bais Yaakov School for Girls in Mt. Washington, saw a man and woman who appeared to be of Middle Eastern origin videotaping the entrance to the school and the girls as they left the building. Baltimore County police and the FBI terrorism task force investigated.

Ehrlich said in a statement that he had the incident in mind when he requested latitude from the federal government in how the state could distribute funds. The federal Department of Homeland Security broadened the guidelines in June to include nongovernmental organizations, Pettit said.

"We're showing there's another way ... to look at what we call `critical infrastructure,'" Pettit said.

Federal homeland security officials were unable to immediately confirm the governor's claim that Maryland is the first state to use its grant funds to protect Jewish institutions. Montgomery County appropriated $35,000 this year in local funds for an emergency plan for the Smith school.

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