SPLC Hate Expert: Arsons Not Likely Racial, Religious Crimes

It appears what was a quiet cycle of church arson is coming to an end. From 1994 until 2002, Alabama saw more than two dozen church arsons at both black and white congregations. From 2002 until now, none at all.

The question now is...why these new cases?

Arson investigators have an extremely impressive record of finding out how firebugs go about their business. The science is so exact, they can tell victims not only where a fire started but what the criminal used.

Jan Wood is a board member at the Providence United Methodist Church in Titus.

"They told us our fire began in the oven. They had placed some books and some tablecloths in there," she said.

The far tougher job for investigators is finding out why someone would target a church. And now, with nine new incidents in the last five days, it seems everyone has a theory.

"In every one of these new cases, the fires started in the pulpit and on the communion table. Someone is sending a message to Christianity," said John Giles, leader of the Alabama Christian Coalition.

But what may surprise you is this:

"I haven't seen anything to suggest this was a hate crime."

That, from hate group expert Mark Potok. Potok directs the Southern Poverty Law Center's Hatewatch. Before then, he was a reporter for USA Today, and he covered the last rash of church burnings from 1994 to 1998. The paper sent reporters to every fire reported in 1998.

"The churches were burned for any number of reasons from drunk teenagers to ex-members of the congregations, in which many congregations were black, so there was a whole array of reasons. But there really was no conspiracy," Potok said.

And he says, there was no evidence the criminals targeted blacks. Now, Potok is convinced this round of fires probably isn't linked to race or religion either.

"I've never heard of a case involving church burning that was motivated by an anti-Christian bias," he said.

So why does someone burn down a church?

The National Church Arson Task Force says there are some racially motivated cases, but there were others where someone wanted to cover up a crime, like theft or fraud from the church, and in several cases, simply vandalism.

Who are the criminals?

The federal government arrested 308 people for church arsons in 1998.

254 suspects were white, 46 were black, eight were Hispanic.

The people arrested for burning black churches?

Sixty-eight were white, 37 black and one Hispanic.

Here's the interesting part.

The vast majority of suspects arrested for burning a white church were white.

One hundred eighty one suspects were listed as 'white' with 9 black and 7 Hispanic suspects.

So, it would appear race hasn't surfaced as a common motive.