On Religion/Opinion

When a church is attacked, is it a hate crime?

Security cameras at Saint Columba Catholic Church in Brooklyn showed five people, in the dead of night, trying to force their way inside.

When they failed, the suspects settled for breaking a stained-glass window and attacking a nearby cross. Police noted that this Jan. 27 crime was the latest of many New York attacks on churches, synagogues, sacred symbols and religious schools, medical facilities and offices. Authorities referred this case to the NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force.

Headlines of this kind have become old news, according to the 2024 religious-liberty report from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. What has changed, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, is that anti-Christian vandalism often includes spray-painted slogans such as, "If abortion isn't safe, then neither are you," swastikas and nasty graffiti.

"The general failure ... of the federal government to apprehend and prosecute the perpetrators of such attacks, in contrast with the numerous charges brought against pro-life protesters outside abortion clinics, received significant attention in Congress," noted the report. "In hearings in both the House and the Senate, Republicans accused the Department of Justice and the FBI of bias against Catholics and Christians."

Political activists seeking additional evidence that this issue has become politically charged will be able to quote former President Donald Trump's Feb. 22 speech to the National Religious Broadcasters.

After promising to defend religious freedom, he claimed that "radical left" activists are determined to "tear down crosses where they can. ... But no one will be touching the cross of Christ under the Trump administration, I swear to you that will never happen."

Meanwhile, the Family Research Council released its latest "Hostility Against Churches" report during the NRB convention, a 183-page document built on direct references to online news reports and public-source documents. It included 436 hostile incidents from 2023, more than double the number from 2022. This 2023 total was eight times higher than in 2018, when the conservative think tank began tracking reports.

"Hostile incidents" included vandalism, theft and arson (including attempted arson), as well as bomb threats and gun-related acts on church property. These incidents -- during the six-year period -- occurred in 50 states and the District of Columbia, with the highest numbers found in major states such as California (91), Texas (62), New York (58) and Florida (47).

While it's hard to pinpoint the motivations for all attacks, the report claimed: "Criminal acts of vandalism and destruction of church property may be symptomatic of a collapse in societal reference and respect for houses of worship and religion -- in this case, churches and Christianity. ... Attacks on houses of worship may also signal a discomfort with religion in general."

Thus, "when a statue of Mary outside a Catholic church is beheaded, it is natural for congregants to feel disturbed and upset, and that may be the vandal's aim. Acts of hostility against churches can send the message -- regardless of whether it is the perpetrator's intent -- that churches are not wanted in the community or respected in general. This may cause congregants or church leaders to feel unsafe."

Some attacks were especially symbolic, with the nativity scene at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Catholic Church in the New York borough of Queens being attacked twice -- on the same night. A fire was set at Faith Lutheran Church in Cambridge, Mass., just after the Easter service ended.

One flash point in public discussions of this trend has been whether -- in political rhetoric, court documents or news reports -- most hostile actions against religious sanctuaries and institutions will be considered "hate crimes."

After one attack at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver -- with "Satan lives here" in blood-red paint on the bronze front doors -- the local archbishop cited the surging numbers of attacks on Catholic facilities. However, similar reports are made by leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Black churches and others, he added.

"Simply holding different beliefs, however strongly, is not an invitation to aggression," wrote Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, in the Washington Post. "If that becomes a widely accepted reaction, which now appears to be a real possibility, society will rapidly spiral downward. We'll reach a place where Americans turn on each other at the slightest provocation."

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

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