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Damage to Religious Property

Title 18 U.S. Code § 247 - Damage to Religious Property

Tantamount to the freedom of religious expression in the United States is that religious institutions be protected from deliberate damage. For this reason, the federal government has identified damage to religious property as a hate crime under Title 18 U.S. Code 247.

Depending on the circumstances involved, the severity of the damage, and if anyone is hurt in the process of committing the crime, the penalty can range anywhere from one year to 40 years in prison--and if someone is killed, a judge may even invoke the death penalty.

Damage to Religious Property - Title 18 U.S. Code § 247

18 U.S.C. 247 says, “whoever intentionally defaces, damages, or destroys any religious real property, because of the religious character, or attempts to do so; or obstructs by force or threat of force against religious real property, any person in the enjoyment of that person's free exercise of religious beliefs, or attempts to do so, will be punished in subsection (d).”

 A part of the definition is essential. To be considered a hate crime, the federal prosecutor must prove that the defendant damaged property intentionally and specifically due to its religious nature. The intent to destroy religious property makes this offense a hate crime.

A hate crime under the Church Arson Prevention Act is among the federal offenses you can face when they intentionally damage religious property.

The damaged property must have been designated religious property to be convicted of a federal crime. Federal laws include churches, mosques, synagogues, religious cemeteries, and other religious property.

Before a defendant can be prosecuted for this offense, the Attorney General has to release written certification that states that they are prosecuting the case in the public's interest and necessary to secure justice. Let's review this statute further below.

Overview of 18 U.S.C. 247

Title 18 U.S.C. 247 is the embodiment of the Church Arson Prevention Act, enacted by Congress in 1996. This law prohibits any person from doing any of the following:

  • Intentionally defacing, damaging, or destroying religious property because of the religious character of that property;
  • Intentionally defacing, damaging, or destroying religious property because of the color, race, or ethnicity of anyone associated with that property; or
  • Intentionally obstructing, inhibiting, or interfering with the lawful exercise of religious beliefs at a place of religious worship through force or threat of force.

As noted, religious property may include churches, synagogues, mosques, and other traditional places of worship and cemeteries, shrines, icons, and any other physical embodiment or representation of religious beliefs.

What Makes This a Federal Crime?

While individual states have their laws protecting religious property against damage or defacement, 18 U.S.C. 247 puts damage to religious property under federal jurisdiction in one of two cases:

  • If the religious property in question involves or affects interstate commerce, it is considered a federal crime;
  • If the crime is racially or ethnically motivated, it falls under federal jurisdiction regardless of the state where the property is located.

What Are the Related Federal Statutes?

18 U.S.C. 247 damage to religious property is defined within 18 U.S. Code Chapter 13 Civil Rights that list the other related laws, such as:

  • 18 U.S.C. 241 – conspiracy against rights;
  • 18 U.S.C. 242 - deprivation of rights under color of law;
  • 18 U.S.C. 243 - exclusion of jurors on account of race or color;
  • 18 U.S.C. 244 - discrimination against uniformed armed forces;
  • 18 U.S.C. 245 - federally protected activities;
  • 18 U.S.C. 246 - deprivation of relief benefits;
  • 18 U.S.C. 248 - freedom of access to clinic entrances;
  • 18 U.S.C. 249 - hate crime acts;
  • 18 U.S.C. 250 - penalties for civil rights offenses for sexual misconduct.

 What Are Some Examples?

EXAMPLE 1: As part of his initiation into a secret white supremacist group, Don spray-paints a swastika on the front door of the local Jewish synagogue. Don can be charged with damaging religious property under USC 247, not just because of the nature of the property but also due to his anti-Semitic motivation.

EXAMPLE 2: Tom sneaks into a Catholic cemetery at night and knocks over a statue of the Virgin Mary. While Tom is guilty of one or more crimes for defacing religious property, he will likely NOT be charged under USC 247 unless federal prosecutors can show that his actions affected interstate or foreign commerce.

EXAMPLE 3: While visiting an old church, Emily stumbles and knocks over a shrine with numerous candles lit, starting a fire in the process. Emily is not guilty under USC 247 because her actions were accidental, not intentional.

What Are the Limitations and Conditions?

This law is written with two significant limitations to consider:

  1. Statute of Limitations. Prosecutors must press charges within seven years of the commission of the alleged crime;
  2. Attorney General Certification. For this particular crime to be prosecuted, the Attorney General must certify in writing that prosecuting the case is "in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice."

What Are the Penalties for Damaging Religious Property?

18 U.S.C. 247 lists a wide range of possible penalties for damaging religious property, taking into account the circumstances and extent of the damage. In order of severity:

  • For standard incidents of damage with no aggravating circumstances: the crime is considered a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than one year in jail and fines up to $100,000;
  • If the total damage exceeds a value of $5000: the maximum penalty is three years in prison and fines up to $250,000;
  • If a bodily injury occurs as a result of the incident, or if a dangerous weapon is used or threatened to be used: the maximum penalty is up to 20 years in prison and fines up to $250,000;
  • If a bodily injury occurs during the incident as a result of using explosives or fire: the maximum penalty is 40 years in prison and fines up to $250,000;
  • If the incident results in someone's death, the maximum sentence goes up to life in prison and, in some cases, death.

What Are the Common Defenses?

Because damaging religious property is a hate crime, other than proving that you were the person who caused the damage, prosecutors have one difficult element to prove to convict you of this crime: intent.

Defenses for Damage to Religious Property

They must demonstrate that their actions were intentional, racially motivated, or directed against that form of religious expression.

This can be pretty challenging. If you can show that your actions were accidental or that you had no religious or racial motive, you may be able to beat the charge or at least have your charge downgraded to a lesser offense.

The crime of damaging religious property carries severe penalties for anyone convicted. You can contact our law firm to review the case details and legal options if you have been charged with a federal crime.

We have the necessary experience with the federal criminal justice system to develop an effective defense to give you the best chance at a favorable outcome.

Contact us by phone or fill out the contact form for a case evaluation. Eisner Gorin LLP are federal criminal defense lawyers in Los Angeles, California.

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