Taking Aim Against Church Arson: Groups Support Bill, Raise Funds

For months, Jewish activists have been searching for a way to do more than express solidarity with black clergy and parishioners whose churches have been torched by arsonists.

Such an opportunity presented itself last week, when Congress began considering the Church Arson Prevention Act, which the House is expected to pass as early as this week.

Jewish groups such as the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Anti-Defamation League have asked members of Congress to support the measure, which would make it easier for federal law enforcement agencies to prosecute the arsonists.

At least two Jewish groups have also launched fund-raising drives to help the at least 34 Southern churches – most of them are predominantly black – that have been targeted by arsonists in the past 18 months.

The congressional measure is being considered as an amendment to the Federal Religious Vandalism Statute, the so-called hate crimes legislation passed in 1988.

Under that law, any crime against religious institutions falls under the federal jurisdiction only if the crime resulted in more than $10,000 in damage. It also only applies to religiously motivated hate crimes.

The proposed act would make it easier for arson cases to be tried in federal courts by eliminating the $10,000 minimum amount of damage now necessary for the cases to fall under federal jurisdiction.

The groups are also working to expand coverage of the law to include not only arsonists and other vandals motivated by religion bias but those committing such crimes for racial reason.

Suspected vandals can now claim that their actions were racially motivated and avoid federal courts.

Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, says closing such loopholes is an important tool for federal prosecutors.

“Our approach has been that it’s not enough to simply search for the perpetrators and punish them,” he said. “We need to seize this opportunity for a broad response to hate crimes generally.”

“If a church was burned because everyone there was black, no one should be able to escape prosecution,” he added.

Lieberman also said the ADL is reviewing hate crime laws in the states where the church fires occurred, “looking to improve or expand state hate crime laws in the wake of this series of arsons.”

Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) has introduced a similar measure in the Senate, though Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) is expected to author “broader, more ambitious” legislation, Lieberman said.

The Congressional Black Caucus scheduled hearings this week on the proposed measures. The ADL is expected to testify.

Meanwhile, in full-page ads last Friday in the Washington Post, The New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the ADL urged readers to “speak our,” write letters of support to members of the churches involved and “contribute as much as you can to help rebuild these houses of worship.”

“A number of people have called and said they were sending money,” said Laura Kam, am ADL spokeswoman here. She added that no money had reached any ADL office yet.

There has also been “a positive response from the African American media,” Kam said.

Future ads will be co-sponsored by the Urban League and are scheduled to appear in African American newspapers, in Jewish newspapers and as radio public service announcements.

At the same time, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the New York Board of Rabbis are establishing a fund to rebuild one of the targeted churches, the Matthews Murckland Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C.

The church was destroyed by fire June 6. Pastor Larry Hill is set to address the groups on Tuesday, when he is scheduled to be presented with an initial cash gift on behalf of the New York Jewish community.

It is “very, very important that the Jewish community not be so arrogant and naive to think that this could not happen to synagogues,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the foundation.

Jews should be “rallying together with our brothers and sisters in the South.”

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