Churches are being burned all across the U.S.
On Thursday, May 5, 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the apprehension of 46-year-old Christopher Scott Pritchard in connection with hate crime and arson charges for burning down the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints near his home in Cape Girardeau, Missouri on Sunday, April 18, 2021. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Department’s Civil Rights Division, U.S. Attorney Sayler A. Fleming for the Eastern District of Missouri and Acting Special Agent in Charge Akil Davis for the FBI St. Louis Field Office spoke to the public about the matter. According to court documents, Pritchard is charged with “Intentionally obstructing parishioners in the enjoyment of their free exercise of religious beliefs” and “using fire to commit a federal felony.” The First Amendment of the U.S. constitution covers freedom of religion practiced in churches and free speech.
More specifically, Pritchard’s charges include first degree property damage enhanced as a hate crime (as fires set at churches are typically prosecuted) as well as second degree arson, burglary and stealing. If he is ultimately convicted of these charges, Pritchard will face up to two decades in prison for obstructing the parishioners and a mandatory minimum of ten years in prison (in addition to any other sentencing) for “using fire to commit a federal felony.” He also faces a fine of up to $250,000 for each charge made against him.
These charges were brought as a result of an investigation by the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff’s Office, the FBI, the Missouri State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives. The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorneys Shan Patel and Noah Coakley of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Hahn for the Eastern District of Missouri.
Church arsons seem to be happening all over the U.S. as of late. Recently, Dushko Vulchev, a Bulgarian national from Maine, was arraigned in U.S. District on federal charges of attempting to burn down Martin Luther King Jr. Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Massachusetts.
A fire at Catawba Chapel AME Zion Church in York County, South Carolina, of which the congregation is primarily Black, is also currently being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and local sheriff’s deputies as a possible arson. There were no injuries and “church members discovered damage when they gathered on a Thursday to prepare for Sunday worship services,” according to York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson who added that the fire caused damage estimated at around $40,000.
A Brewster, Washington, man is scheduled to appear this month in Okanogan County Superior Court to enter pleas in two cases involving 2020 fires at Brewster churches. And an investigation is underway after pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, was set on fire. Those working the case are attempting to determine what started the fire and will pursue charges if it’s ultimately determined the cause was arson.