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Are Church Fires Hate Crimes?

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on August 26, 2015 10:55 AM

In the two weeks following Dylann Roof's massacre of nine parishioners in a Charleston, South Carolina church, seven other churches in five states caught fire. A connection with the shooting, and with the history of racist violence against black churches, seemed obvious.

But none of these fires have been charged as hate crimes. Why not? Shouldn't all church burnings be hate crimes?

Proving Arson

In order to demonstrate that a church fire was a hate crime, authorities first need to prove the fire was intentional. According to the Los Angeles Times, there were 1,660 fires at religious and funeral properties in 2011 alone, over 130 per month. Of those 16 percent, or five per week, were deemed to be arson.

And of six of the recent church fires, just three were being investigated as arson. Even if investigators can prove a church fire was set intentionally, linking it to a race-based motive -- as opposed to just vandalism -- can be difficult. In most of the recent church fires, authorities don't have a suspect.

Proving a Hate Crime

The federal Civil Rights Act defines a hate crime as:

"willfully caus[ing] bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin."

Therefore, if a church is burned at night with no one inside it could be hard to prove an attempt to cause bodily injury. Also, the federal statute requires the defendant or victim to move across state lines (or the use of a weapon or instrument that has) to even apply.

And six states, including South Carolina, Arkansas, and Georgia, don't have hate crime laws on the books. So even if someone was proved to have intentionally burned a church for race-based reasons, he or she could not be charged with a hate crime.

While church burnings seem like easy hate crime violations, proving the fires were intentional, finding a suspect, and then proving that the person burned the church for racial reasons under state or federal law can be nearly impossible.

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