BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Methodists and Baptists have a friendly rivalry. It centers more on being first to the restaurant for Sunday lunch than anything dark or unsettling.
That long-standing relationship had a new, uncomfortable twist thrown in two weeks ago when three young men linked to a United Methodist college were charged in a string of arsons at rural Baptist churches in Alabama.
No one has suggested that the school, the United Methodist Church or religious faith was tied to the blazes in any way. An attorney for one of the men said the fires weren't motivated by religious bias, and investigators agreed.
Yet the two United Methodist bishops in Alabama issued public statements after the arrests.
Methodist Bishop Larry Goodpaster of Montgomery oversees churches in south Alabama and western Florida. He said the alleged actions of these young men do not reflect the values and beliefs that we hold as United Methodist Christians.
The bishop for north Alabama, William Willimon, said Methodists were among those helping the burned churches with financial assistance and offers of construction help. His office is located at the Methodist-affiliated Birmingham-Southern College, which two of the suspects attended.
Russell Lee DeBusk Junior and Benjamin Nathan Moseley, both 19-year-old theater students at Birmingham-Southern, are jailed along with 20-year-old Matthew Lee Cloyd in the fires.
They are due in court Wednesday for a hearing.
Investigators said the number of Baptist churches in Alabama -- particularly rural areas where the fires occurred -- could have been behind the fact that only Baptist churches were burned.
A Web-based telephone directory lists five-thousand-78 Baptist churches in the state compared to only one-thousand-26 Methodist congregations. Overall, Alabama has a Baptist church for each of its 875 residents.