LGBTQ Agenda: Feds charge Ohio man with arson in attempt to burn LGBTQ-affirming church

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday May 2, 2023
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An Ohio man was arrested and charged in federal court with arson in attempting to burn the Community Church of Chesterland, Ohio. Photo: Courtesy the Buckeye Flame
An Ohio man was arrested and charged in federal court with arson in attempting to burn the Community Church of Chesterland, Ohio. Photo: Courtesy the Buckeye Flame

An Ohio man is in federal custody, charged with using Molotov cocktails in an attempt to burn an LGBTQ-affirming church to the ground March 25.

Aimenn D. Penny, 20, of Alliance, Ohio, was charged by the United States Department of Justice with four counts in the Northern District of Ohio: two of arson, one of possession of a destructive device, and one of obstruction of the free exercise of religion.

A date for Penny's arraignment has not yet been set, both his attorney and a Justice Department spokesperson stated.

The Justice Department released the information April 24. Penny was charged March 31, according to a news release.

The Reverend Jess Peacock, who is queer and pansexual, is the pastor at the Community Church of Chesterland, Ohio, which is a congregation affiliated with the United Church of Christ, an LGBTQ-affirming mainline Protestant Christian denomination.

Peacock told the Bay Area Reporter that they "were in the midst of planning a drag day" when this all began.

"We had a couple drag brunches lined up and a drag story hour," Peacock said. "We received a flood of hate, which didn't surprise us."

But what was a bit more surprising was when, with just about two weeks left till Easter, Peacock "got a call that our sign had been damaged."

The night before saw "a bad storm," Peacock explained, and so they "went out to the church, and it didn't look like it [the sign] was hit by a tree."

"As I walked closer to the church, I realized I was stepping on glass and saw the remnants of vodka bottles and it became very clear someone took a Molotov cocktail and tried to burn our church down," Peacock recalled.

The Molotov cocktails destroyed the sign, as well as outdoor lighting fixtures. Peacock credits the survival of the building to the storm.

"Thankfully, the fire damage was minimal," Peacock said.

The building remained usable, but the church could not hold a worship service the following day as law enforcement needed to conduct an investigation.

By March 31, Penny had been arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The drag events took place the following day with protesters of the event and counterprotesters chanting outside until heavy rain drowned them out, according to a report on WKYC-TV

The FBI said it worked with other agencies on the case.

"The FBI Cleveland Joint Terrorism Task Force worked alongside the Chester Township Police Department in the matter surrounding a Molotov cocktail used against the Community Church of Chesterland on March 25. The FBI leveraged its task force and its specialized resources to identify, locate and subsequently arrest the subject earlier today," stated Special Agent in Charge Gregory Nelsen of the FBI Cleveland Field Office.

"We thank the collaborative work and strong partnership of the Chester Township Police and Lake and Geauga County local authorities who assisted," Nelsen added.

Peacock said the federal charges are due to the deprivation of the church's right to the free exercise of religion, enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"There's no way to disentangle our spiritual beliefs — that God is love and is expansive in their welcome of people and not excluding anyone, and that includes queer people, people of color, and people with disabilities," Peacock said. "We were targeted not only for a political stance, but for a theological, religious one."

Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department's National Security Division agreed in the news release.

"As alleged in the charging documents, the defendant used an explosive device to cause harm to a church he found objectionable," Olsen stated. "It is the solemn duty of the Department of Justice to safeguard the right of all Americans to free expression, and I commend the work of law enforcement in this matter."

When asked why it did not also file charges under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added crimes based on a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability to the nation's hate crimes laws, a Justice Department spokesperson stated April 26 it could not offer any comment to the B.A.R. due to the ongoing nature of the prosecution.

John Greven, the attorney who is representing Penny, stated to the B.A.R. on April 25 that his client "has not even been arraigned yet, and I have not seen any of the discovery yet.

"So it would be too early for any kind of a comment," Greven stated. "Maybe down the road I will have one for you."

Peacock is grateful for the support they've received.

"We're open and affirming and have been the last 30 years," Peacock said. "We don't discriminate. We always receive a lot of hate but we were flooded with support. ... The amount of support far outweighs the hate we've received."

LGBTQ Agenda is an online column that appears weekly. Got a tip on queer news? Contact John Ferrannini at [email protected]

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