Originally created 07/03/96

States get aid to protect churches



WASHINGTON - Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers and South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon joined seven of their counterparts Tuesday at a summit to condemn the wave of church burnings across the South.

As the attorneys general were meeting with religious and civil rights leaders at Howard University, President Clinton was designating $6 million to help local police bolster protection of churches. The funds will go to 12 states, including Georgia and South Carolina.

Mr. Condon welcomed the additional money promised by Mr. Clinton, but said South Carolina is fully capable of investigating the church fires and prosecuting suspects without outside help.

"We are doing the job with our own personnel," he said at Howard's School of Divinity. "We are solving this problem as Southerners, and look forward to bringing everybody who commits these crimes to justice."

Clarence Newsome, the school's dean, called the oldest divinity school in the United States a fitting backdrop for the daylong summit.

"The principle of separation of church and state was never intended to prevent or inhibit the cooperation of these two institutions," he said. "(They) were intended to work together for the common good."

Over the past 18 months, federal agents have investigated more than 70 suspicious fires or acts of desecration at black churches, primarily in the Southeast.

Law enforcement officials have reacted by forming task forces at the federal and state levels and establishing telephone tip lines. Religious organizations have offered rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the crimes.

Last week, Congress passed legislation to double the maximum prison term to 20 years for anyone convicted of church attacks, and increase the statute of limitations for prosecution from five to seven years. The president pledged Tuesday to sign the measure.

The attorneys general reiterated their commitment to put every resource at their disposal in their states to solve every suspicious fire. They also announced the establishment of a new toll-free telephone tip hotline, which can be reached from six Southern states and the District of Columbia at 1-888-855-5000.

The line is not available in Georgia and South Carolina, but plans call for the service to be expanded to the entire South, Virginia Attorney General James Gilmore said.

Mr. Bowers said nothing he gathered from Tuesday's summit shed any light on why Georgia churches haven't been hit with as many church fires as surrounding states. He said of the nine church fires in the state since the beginning of 1994, six were at primarily white churches.

"I like to think it's because of superior law enforcement locally and statewide," Mr. Bowers said. "But I don't know."

Religious and civil rights leaders praised the attorneys general for bringing more attention to the epidemic of church fires. The Rev. Earl Jackson Sr., director for community development for The Christian Coalition, said the message delivered by events such as Tuesday's summit might be getting through even to those who might be inclined to commit such acts.

"As more groups and organizations come together and say...`We don't accept this,' it creates a climate in which that kind of racial hatred is not tolerated," he said.