From the Office of State Senator Rodney Ellis
For Immediate Release
March 3, 1997
Contact: Rick Svataro, (512) 463-0113
SENATOR ELLIS WINS SENATE APPROVAL OF CHURCH BURNING LAW
HOUSTON, Tx. -- In the wake of a tragic trend of church burnings in Texas and across the nation, State Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) today won Senate approval for a legislative proposal (Senate Bill 78) that would increase the penalty for burning a place of worship to a first degree felony. Ellis said the measure, which passed unanimously out of the Senate, is part of a comprehensive package of legislation that would help protect churches and punish criminals who seek to destroy them.
"The tragic trend of church burnings in Texas and across the nation challenges us to do more to protect our sacred houses of worship," said Ellis. "These despicable acts must serve as a wake-up call for all Texans to work to prevent these crimes and punish the cowards who commit them."
Between January 1, 1995 and December 17, 1996, 318 churches in America were victimized by arson. In Texas, the Commission on Fire Protection identified 63 suspicious church fires since 1995.
Other church safety legislation introduced by Ellis would prohibit insurance companies from canceling policies held by churches that are victimized by arson and strengthen the Texas hate crimes law. Ellis said he will also promote education and prevention efforts to help keep Texas churches safe.
"An attack on a church or place of worship is an attack on all people of faith and the fundamental religious values which unite us as Americans," Ellis said. "To strike at the people of one faith is to strike at people of all faiths."
Highlights of Rodney Ellis' Church Safety Legislative Package:
- Increase the penalty for burning a church or place of worship to a first degree felony. (SB 78) Ellis' proposed legislation would increase the penalty for burning a church or place of worship from a second degree felony to a first degree felony. Changing the law would ensure that someone convicted of burning a place of worship would face at least five years in prison and as much as a $10,000 fine. Senators John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Jerry Patterson (R-Pasadena) are co-sponsors of the bill.
- Prohibit Insurance Redlining of Churches Victimized by Arson (SB 79). Ellis said his legislation would prohibit insurance companies from canceling or not renewing the insurance policies of a church or place of worship because of a proven case of arson. In 1995, three black churches in Tennessee were denied renewal of their insurance policies after they were victimized by arson. Other churches across the nation have experienced similar insurance problems. Status: referred to the Senate Economic Development Committee.
- Strengthen the Texas Hate Crimes Law (SB 80). To address the large number of fires at predominantly African American churches, Ellis said he hopes to strengthen the hate crimes law in Texas. Hate crimes legislation passed by Senator Ellis in 1993 increased penalties for a convicted criminal if -- during the punishment phase of a trial -- the prosecutor proved that the crime was motivated by bias or prejudice. Ellis' new legislation would clarify the scope of the hate crimes law to assist district attorneys offices in prosecuting under the statute. Status: referred to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. The Texas Department of Public Safety identified 402 hate crimes in Texas in 1994. In Senator Ellis' hometown of Houston, hate crimes increased 63 percent from 1993 to 1994. According to the DPS report, almost one in four hate crimes that year was violent in nature.
- Promote Church Safety Through Education and Prevention Efforts. Senator Ellis is also leading prevention efforts by promoting safety tips for churches recommended by the Texas Commission on Fire Protection. Among the safety tips are recommendations to: organize neighborhood watch programs; make a list of all church property which should be photographed or videotaped; place large neighborhood watch warning signs at strategic locations around the church property; install exterior lighting to eliminate dark spots near any church building; report any suspicious activities around the church to the local police or sheriff's department, and ask neighbors to do the same, especially when no church activities are normally scheduled.
"We must send a clear message that the destruction of a house of worship is unacceptable to the people of Texas," Ellis said. "I hope all Texans will unite behind these efforts to make our churches safer and prosecute the criminals who seek to destroy them. The legacy of suffering and loss caused by church burnings demands that we do no less."