JEFFERSON COUNTY, Ark.- A small church sits just outside Pine Bluff in rural Jefferson county. It’s location is strategic.
“We want people to know the Lord isn’t just in the city, he’s everywhere,” Pastor J.Y. Williams explained.
Saint John Missionary Baptist Church sanctuary is a sacred place for Williams.
“My father was baptized here at Saint John at 10 years old and he pastored this church for 42 years. I’ve been blessed to be here now 24 years,” Williams said.
Every week the third generation pastor, searches the scriptures.
“I had prepared a message on that Sunday on persecution,” he said.
On August 11, minutes before delivering his sermon Pastor Williams discovered someone else had been in the pulpit.
“They pried the doors open and pulled the flowers out of our planter at the front of the building.”
Never before seen photos show the mess burglars made. The pictures show where they ransacked church records, ripped pages out of the bible and burned them.
“Then there was some type of ritual performed on our holy communion table. They splashed wine on our church bible,” Williams said.
The quaint congregation felt violated by vandals.
“The just felt like they were taken advantage of, for no reason at all.”
What was even more disturbing to Williams, the item left behind.
“There was a garment left that resembled a Ku Klux Klan garment.”
“That speaks for itself.”
For the predominately African American church, there’s no question the motive was hate.
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office is investigating it as a possible hate crime, but no arrests have been made.
“The finger prints were unidentifiable, so that was a loss right there,” he said.
According to Jefferson County Sheriff Lafayette Woods, those responsible would likely face breaking and entering, and criminal mischief charges, because nothing was taken, not even the food in the food bank.
Support for Hate Crimes Legislation
“Unfortunately right now in Arkansas there would be nothing to allow a prosecutor to enhance a penalty for a hate crime,” Senator Greg Leding told KARK’s Ashley Ketz.
While hate crimes are already illegal under federal law, Senator Leding is frustrated the Natural State is one of four states without its own legislation.
Governor Asa Hutchinson agrees. “Arkansas needs to pass this legislation to send the strongest signal possible that we’re not going to tolerate that type of hate,” Gov. Hutchinson said in August following mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas.
“I don’t think that’s necessarily a good look. We want people to come to Arkansas to open up businesses and join businesses. I think it would be important to sent that message,” Sen. Leding said.
In 2017, the Democratic lawmaker sponsored a bill that included protections for victims who were targeted because of their race, color, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin, sexual orientation, gender or disability.
House Bill 2088 didn’t have enough to support to make it out of committee.
Leding isn’t giving up.
“I would love to see the legislature pass a hate crime bill in 2021. Whether it’s the one we introduced in 2017 or a new bill that’s still meaningful, regardless of who sponsors the bill. I think it’s important we get something in the books. I’m willing to work with anybody who wants to see something happen,” Leding said.
Opposition to Hate Crimes Legislation
Just down the street from the Capitol, you won’t find Leding’s legislation hanging in Jerry Cox’s office.
“What we’re talking about here is the passage of a law, that is not a good law,” Cox, said
Cox is the president and founder of the conservative research and education organization Family Council and has studied the issue for more than 15 years.
“It’s the same every time. It’s thought policing. It’s devaluing categories that aren’t on the list. It’s about does it actually work? No it does it not.”
He also points to enhanced penalties he says are already available in Arkansas, based on the crime or perpetrator’s criminal record.
“For these kinds of horrendous acts like down in El Paso, in a state like Arkansas, that guy would get the death penalty. I don’t know how you could execute him anymore dead that he probably would already be. There’s a point where you just can’t enhance the penalties than they already are.”
While Cox admits hate crimes laws are well-intended, Family Council has worked to defeat it six times in the legislature. He worries there could be broader consequences.
“Once you put sexual orientation and gender identity and perceived gender identity in there then you’ve carved out a special class for people in those categories, where they could then come back and use that as a spring board against people of faith who maybe don’t want to cater a same sex wedding.”
Leding calls that a common misconception.
“A law like this would protect all Arkansans, regardless. You, me, anybody, if they were targeted and the crime was committed primarily out of hate,” he said.
Cox and Sen. Leding agree to disagree on the solution.
“As long as I’m serving in the legislature, this will be something that I try to see pass,” Leding said
“It isn’t the fault of the law’s. It’s human hearts. and the need for them to be changed,” Cox reiterated.
Whether its a change in the law or change of heart, Pastor Williams stands firm on his faith and won’t let hate stop his ministry’s mission.
“The answer is to love one another. That is the answer.”