Attack on churches violated civil rights

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 24, 2006

Even before the smoke had cleared around four fire-damaged churches in west Alabama, people began to wonder if the arson spree had been racially motivated.

Unlike the five Bibb County churches that had burned three days earlier, all four churches set aflame Feb. 7 had predominately black congregations. But with five black churches and five white churches were targeted, race did not seem a likely motive, according to investigators with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Alabama Fire Marshall’s Office.

Though the churches were not targeted for the race of their congregations, many still consider the still unsolved arson cases “hate crimes.”

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“I call it a hate crime,” said U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham.

Davis’ Seventh Congressional District encompasses most of the Black Belt, and the four churches torched Feb. 7 – Morningstar Missionary Baptist in the Greene County community of Boligee, Galilee Baptist and Spring Valley Baptist in Sumter County, and Dansby First Baptist near Aliceville.

“It takes an incredible amount of meanness to go into someone’s church and set fire to it,” he added.

Many Christian groups agree, and want to see the arsonists pursued with the same vigor as the perpetrators of more commonly accepted hate crimes, like those related to race or sexual orientation.

“Since freedom of religious expression is part and parcel with being American, the intentional destruction of places of worship constitute a frontal assault on our way of life, the free expression of faith and, therefore, our civil rights,” Tom Benz, president of the Alabama Clergy Council, said.

Benz said he hoped to see state and federal attorneys general seek civil rights charges against the perpetrators once they are captured.

Benz noticed that, in press reports on the fires, a police officer who responded was surprised they didn’t just dowse the churches’ exteriors with gasoline.

“Instead, they made a point of getting inside and starting the fire at the altar area; they were making a point,” Benz said, recalling the officer’s description.

“In fact,” Benz added, “I would say that they were making a theological statement.”

Investigators have not released any further leads in the case, but the ATF’s Northeast National Response Team was dispatched Feb. 17 to lead the investigation.

The fires have faded from the headlines, but members of the church community are fighting to keep them in the public’s consciousness.

“My heart is broken, why anyone would deliberately destroy these churches, it just tells us how truly sick our society has become,” the Rev. Anthony Evans, president of the National Black Church Initiative, said. “We must do all that we can to, first of all, stop this madness and secondly, to pray for their souls.”

Standing near the ashes of the 94-year-old church he had ministered, the Rev. James Posey, pastor of Morningstar Baptist Church, echoed Evans’ call for both justice and forgiveness. “God will take care of the people who did this,” he said. “And God will forgive all our sins, even the men who burned down this church.”