Vandals Torch Virginia Church

After national synod endorses same-sex marriage, arsonists apparently target rural church

Federal law enforcement agents have joined state police investigators in the arson investigation of a Virginia church fire that appears to have been set by anti-gay vandals.

A congregant who was mowing the grass noticed anti-gay messages spray-painted on the brick exterior of St. John’s Reformed United Church of Christ and, opening the sanctuary door, discovered a small fire. The Middlebrook Volunteer Fire Company quickly responded and extinguished the flames.

Destruction of church property is a federal crime and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, typically referred to as the ATF, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have established a task force with state police investigators.

Spokesmen at the federal agencies said that there was no evidence that the incident was a bias-related attack. Nevertheless, coming a week after the United Church of Christ’s endorsement of same-sex marriage at its July 4 biennial synod in Atlanta, speculation has centered on anti-gay bias as the motive for the fire.

“Basically, a lot of the investigation is good, old-fashioned police work,” said Mike Campbell, a spokesman in Washington, D.C. for the ATF, who said that investigators are going to “look at all details involved” before declaring a motive for the crime.

Nationwide, the United Church of Christ—well known for its progressive policies regarding minority groups including gays and lesbians—has 1.3 million members and 5,700 autonomous congregations. The gay marriage resolution is non-binding.

The Staunton News Leader reported that a stack of hymnals and a portion of the choir loft were damaged in the fire. Fire Lt. Tim McCray said the blaze was extinguished in several minutes.

While damage to the structure appears minimal, congregants expressed dismay that their church was the target of vandals.

Thomas Arner, a church member, spoke to the newspaper and said that those who vandalized the church are no better than the people who are responsible for the London bombings. “It’s the same mentality,” Arner said. “Going by what was written on the church, it was someone who had an agenda.”

Lawrence Barry, a spokesman in the FBI’s Richmond, Virginia, office said that at this stage of the investigation it is “total speculation” whether or not a federal crime was committed, but that the FBI vigorously investigates fires at places of worship.

National lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy groups issued statements denouncing the arson. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force referred to the incident as an attack on the Virginia church’s “constitutional right to free exercise of religion” and a “backlash” to the “denomination’s courageous action” in encouraging same-sex marriage.

The Task Force also called on Virginia lawmakers to pass legislation to amend the state’s hate-crime law to include sexual orientation as a protected category.

St. John’s apparently has gay and lesbian members among its small congregation, but unlike, for example, the Metropolitan Community Church, it is not a gay-specific church.

The church did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

A federal hate crime law provides for increased penalties for certain crimes committed out of bias for a victim’s race, religion, national origin, or disability and law enforcement agencies are also required to report anti-gay incidents.

According to Campbell of the ATF, depriving someone of their right to worship is a federal crime under several statutes. In 1996, Pres. Bill Clinton signed the Church Arson Prevention Act in response to a spate of fires at African-American churches.

Campbell said that 200 ATF agents trained in arson investigations are regularly deployed to investigate fires that are potential violations of federal law.

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