National Coalition for Burned Churches Visits Washington
It has been noted that Dr. King “took his stand … ‘because of my love for America and the sublime principles of liberty and equality on which she is founded. … to transform the jangling discords of our Nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.’”
From Proclamation 5431, signed by former President Ronald Reagan for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, January 18, 1986.
The Women’s Division joined 28 delegates from seven states representing the National Coalition for Burned Churches (NCBC) at the 12th Annual National Church Burning Status Conference. And on December 10, the Women’s Division accompanied NCBC delegates to a meeting with the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice. The Director of the Civil Rights Division expressed his deep sadness that church arsons still take place in the US. While church arsons receive sparse media attention, the burnings have not decreased. Multiple burnings of the same churches and cluster burnings (many churches in one area being burned) were two of the issues highlighted at the meeting. Other issues stressed by the NCBC include increased awareness, education, and programs for church arson prevention. The NCBC requested reestablishment and permanent funding of the National Church Arson Task Force.
The National Church Arson Task Force (NCATF) had its origins more than thirteen years ago, when it was established with passage of the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996 (PL 104-155). This collaborative task force combined resources from The Departments of Justice and Treasury, the FBI, ATF, CRS and FEMA. The Church Arson Prevention Act passed after a particularly damaging year when over 400 churches, largely of African-American congregations, burned nationwide. In response to these hate crimes, the government allocated $50 million in federal and private funding towards prevention, prosecution, and rebuilding of church burnings. By 1998 however, that funding was depleted. And under the Bush administration, the task force was no longer a priority. Currently, the NCBC has documented 3000 arson-related incidents over the last twelve years. This record-keeping constitutes an important facet of the Coalition’s mission, as it confirms the ongoing threat of church burnings across the United States. The NCBC’s visit to Washington served as reminder of this persistent threat to our nation’s places of worship.
The Church Arson Prevention Act enabled the Federal government “to prosecute and bring to justice people who burn, desecrate, or otherwise damage religious property”. The NCATF’s three-part approach aimed to: 1) investigate and prosecute arsonists; 2) assist rebuilding efforts for burned places of worship; and 3) establish a clearinghouse for church arson prevention resources through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The NCBC’s Reverend Rose Johnson-Mackey asserts that “Today, there exists a unique opportunity to build upon the extraordinary gains made since passage of the Church Arson Prevention Act. Our hope is that we can work more aggressively to protect the right of congregations to worship in peace.”
In addition to the Women’s Division, the NCBC delegation met with Mr. Thomas Perez of the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice. The delegation stressed hopes for renewed diligence and aggressive prosecutions from the Department of Justice. Permanent Funding for the NCATF should be a crucial first step towards accomplishing this goal.
The Coalition also met with representatives of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership. The OFBNP attendees at this meeting represented the departments of Homeland Security, Agriculture and Health and Human Services. This session addressed a variety of focused concerns within the broad issue of burned churches. These include analyzing the impact of acts of terror on communities, and community building in high-risk areas where these crimes can often recur.
During its advocacy visit to Washington, the Coalition’s delegation convened a National Church Burning Briefing at the Cannon House Building in Washington, updating members of Congress, staffers, and the public on the status of church burnings in America.
Our partnership with the NCBC is critical to our mission of supporting women and children and to ensuring all people live free from hate. Of all the victims of church burnings, children are perhaps the most seriously affected. In 1998, Jim Johnson, co-chair of the NCATF, spoke about the effects of church burnings on children. He told the story of the Attorney General directing the Office for Victims of Crime to work with the South Carolina Burned Churches Coalition, “they had a two-day conference attended by 150 kids…[t]he conference was well received by the youngsters. Talking about it was, for some, cathartic.” Johnson’s story highlights a case where the healing process was directed from the highest levels of government. Even though today’s burnings attract less media attention than the cases immediately before and after 1996, outreach to victims - particularly children - is an important element of our pursuit of justice.
Joining the National Coalition for Burned Churches during its annual conference reflects our continued commitment to work against church burnings and bombings nationwide. Working with partners that form a multi-racial, interfaith coalition of churches and organizations, the NCBC acts to protect the right to peaceful worship. Through research and documentation, support of victims, church rebuilding, as well as programs to build community capacity and involve youth, the NCBC demonstrates that we must be forever vigilant to ensure that Dr. King’s “beautiful symphony of brotherhood” is realized.