Hate crimes in Texas flames?

One of the hottest recent stories down in Texas has been a series of church burnings. Authorities have now accused two men of arson in these cases and there are details in the life of one of these former Baptists that are interesting, to say the least. For example, a Dallas Morning news report opens like this:

TYLER -- One of two East Texas church arson suspects kept books on demon possession and atheism as well as assault rifles and guns, and may have left graffiti offering inside information about one of the attacks in a local store bathroom, according to court records.

Jason Bourque, 19, was under police surveillance on Feb. 13 when he went in the bathroom of a ranch store in Tyler, according to one search warrant affidavit filed in Smith County District Court. Investigators later found an upside-down cross topped with flames carved onto the store's bathroom wall, the documents said. Beside the cross were the words "Little Hope was Arson," an apparent reference to the first of 10 churches burned in the spree that terrorized three East Texas counties.

At the time, court records indicate, authorities had not released any information indicating that they suspected that the Jan. 1 fire at Little Hope Baptist Church in Canton was deliberately set. Court documents indicate that investigators had determined that the fire was arson, but that information "would not have been known to anyone else but the fire starter."

Later, readers learn that the search of Bourque's home found books titled Demon Possession and The Atheist's Way. It also seems that he liked brown shoes, for what that's worth.

In other words, the fact that he had interesting reading habits linked to religious studies may or may not have played a role in the alleged acts. Would the crimes be worthy of harsher sentences if these beliefs were part of his motives setting the fires?

A GetReligion reader -- DaveG -- thinks that journalists may want to think about that:

Just an observation. Notice that there is little to no mention of the Texas church arson cases being a hate crime. In fact, in an interview, a member of the investigation said they don't have to be, since different churches of different denominations were targeted -- and they were mostly white. That got me to thinking. If synagogues of different views were targeted, would we brush off the notion of a hate crime? If mosques that disagreed on various beliefs or actions were targeted, would we so easily dismiss the crimes as hate crimes? ...

Here is the key section of the USA Today story mentioned in that letter, featuring quotes from Tom Crowley, the spokesman for the Dallas office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The Dallas Morning News reported ... that Crowley said that though no motive is known, the fires could be set to cover up another crime. Non-religious items have been stolen from some of the churches, he told the newspaper.

"It doesn't have to be a hate crime," Crowley said, noting that a variety of denominations and non-denominational churches were targets. Most, but not all, have predominantly white congregations.

No matter what you think about the validity of hate crimes, this is an interesting issue. It appears to me that journalists must have raised this issue, which drew the response from the spokesman.

Still, the angle has not been discussed much in mainstream coverage, unless I have missed something. You have to think it would be a major element of the coverage if we were talking about synagogues, mosques or ethnic churches. Right?

Meanwhile, a blog at the Morning News has another interesting piece of color linked to these questions:

East Texas church arson suspect Jason Robert Bourque calls himself "Mr. Brightside" on his MySpace page, lists his religion as "Christian -- other" and prominently displays this quote from the 19th century anti-Christian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

"Never give way to remorse, but immediately say to yourself: that would merely mean adding a second stupidity to the first. -- If you have done harm, see how you can do good. -- If you are punished for your actions, bear the punishment with the feeling that you ARE doing good -- by deterring others from falling prey to the same folly. Every evildoer who is punished may feel that he is a benefactor of humanity."

Well, I'll ask the question: I wonder what church he does attend, if any? Maybe he's just a post-denominational, "spiritual" person. Maybe.

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