News of church fires in Rockford, Illinois and Jackson, Mississippi have highlighted the importance of a little-known federal law called the Church Arson Prevention Act. Congress passed the law in 1996 to make it a federal crime to damage houses of worship or violently interfere with an individual’s freedom to worship in a place of religious assembly. Congress recognized that all citizens deserve the right to hold or use religious property without fear of attack or interference.
Churches and other houses of worship often stand as important community symbols representing the identity, heritage and beliefs of particular groups. As a result, they are seen as targets. Historically, racial hatred and anti-religious sentiment have been at the root of most of the church arsons. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, arson of African-American congregations was not uncommon.
When church arsons increased in the 1990s, Illinois congressman Henry Hyde sponsored the Church Arson Prevention Act, and President Bill Clinton formed the National Church Arson Task Force. While the incidences of church arson may not be as prevalent as they were in the 1960s, the recent reports of church arsons should cause us to renew our commitment to ensuring that all Americans can have and use places of religious assembly without fear or interference.
Attorney Noel W. Sterett is a religious land use attorney and partner at Dalton & Tomich. He oversees the firm’s office in Rockford, Illinois, and represents a wide variety of religious institutions and assemblies. The core of his practice is devoted to “ensuring people are free to serve God and their neighbors in their communities and in the marketplace.”