Who would burn a church? No quick answer: Rash of intolerant crimes must be stopped.

July 17, 1996

LAW OFFICERS investigating a rash of church burnings in Southern states have been unable to pin the crimes on a conspiracy of racists, though a disproportionate number of the burned churches were African-American congregations. That fact and updated statistics showing white churches, too, have been targeted by arsonists over 18 months have led some to conclude the problem may be more perception than reality.

They're wrong. Whether the church fires are racially motivated or are the demented work of anti-religion zealots or of sundry groups of bored kids spending their summer vacation being destructive, they must be stopped. The despicable nature of these crimes reflects an intolerant sickness of spirit that must be removed from our society.

Law enforcement officials comparing notes from several states say the phenomenon is not clearly decipherable since African-American churches aren't the only ones being burned. The Justice Department has counted 245 church fires since 1990, but there is disagreement over how many of those involved black churches. The Associated Press has counted more than 409 fires since 1990, about 100 of them at black churches. But the AP says three-quarters of the fires at African-American churches have occurred since 1995.

In a June 30 dispatch from South Carolina, Sun reporter Ginger Thompson noted that an examination of the black and white churches burned in that state was like comparing apples and oranges. The white churches had suffered minimal fire damage, while black congregations had seen their buildings devastated.

Congress has acknowledged the seriousness of these crimes by passing a new law making church-burning a federal offense that carries a maximum 40-year prison sentence. President Clinton has asked for a special $6 million appropriation to help local authorities investigate church fires. A separate $24 million, two-year appropriation may go to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for that purpose.

Such steps are warranted. Burning churches constitutes an PTC attack on the very principles upon which this nation was founded. The culprits must be found and punished.

Pub date: 7/17/96

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