The Legislature's in Session So Now Our Churches Are Safe? (4/9/97)

The Texas Legislature is in session again in Austin, and the mad scramble to enact new laws is on. Shortly before the filing deadline of March 15th, the senate had introduced just under 3,300 bills while the house of representatives weighed in with almost 1,900. Although every now and then the statutes and codes of this great State are necessarily "tweaked" by senators and representatives, oftentimes the bills introduced for consideration are an over reaction to a problem which, for one reason or another, received considerable media attention.

The case in point this session is Senate Bill 78 which, if passed, would upgrade the punishment for the offense of burning of a church from a second degree felony (2 to 20 years in prison) to a first degree felony (5 to 99 years or life in prison). Of course, we all know there were a rash of church burnings across the South last year, many of which received initial media coverage because they were characterized as racially motivated. Although many conservative groups maintain that the facts subsequently revealed that the percentage of "black" churches burned was not disproportionate to that of "white" churches", the media coverage continued. President Clinton even made it the subject of one of his weekly radio addresses in June, 1996.

So when the legislature convened early this year, it was not surprising that one of the first bills introduced was one which would raise the punishment range for church burning. Is that needed? Quite frankly, it is difficult to justify. Certainly it cannot be argued that life in prison would be a deterrent to a would-be arsonist while 20 years in prison would not be. If someone is inclined to burn a church, I don't believe that he takes into consideration the range of punishment before he strikes the match any more than he would thumb through the Texas Penal Code.

Admittedly, deterrence is not the only reason for punishment in our criminal justice system. Nevertheless, what about the other buildings that serve as important cornerstones in our community? Why are museums, day care centers, funeral homes, historical monuments, nursing homes, courthouses, and the like relegated to second class citizens while churches are the only structure worthy of first degree felony status? Additionally, other crimes which would appear to at least be "equal" to the crime of church burning (indecency with a child, sexual assault, aggravated assault) remain second degree felonies.

The bill also seems to ignore the fact that Texas law, under section 12.47 of the Penal Code, already allows a crime to be "upgraded" to the next highest punishment range (i.e. second degree to first degree) if the crime was committed because of bias or prejudice.

Hey, I like churches. I go to church. Not as often as I should, but I do go. But a knee jerk reaction to change the punishment range for these hallowed structures is not, in my opinion, justified.

Barry Green is the District Attorney for the 271st Judicial District.

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