More than mischief: Are recent acts of church vandalism tied to bigotry?

Salt Lake City, USA - They've come in the form of a burning Book of Mormon, shattered glass doors, mysterious white powder, graffiti and even a flaming plastic plant. A recent rash of crimes has swept churches along the Wasatch Front and peppered areas of California since Proposition 8, backed by the LDS Church, banned gay marriage there.

While Utah police have not officially connected the vandalism here to Prop 8, it's clear incidents once viewed by many as neighborhood mischief have taken on a new significance and political overtone. Overall, incidents of vandalism at churches, synagogues, temples and other religious buildings in Utah have been rising steadily since 2003.

"We've been watching [churches] a lot closer," said Wayne Hansen, chief of police in Farmington, where a wall outside an LDS church was tagged Wednesday with the message, "Nobody is born a biggot," [sic] and accompanied by a smiley face and a heart.

While vandals target hundreds of religious buildings each year in Utah, some police officers say the recent incidents are particularly strange because perpetrators are leaving businesses, neighborhoods and car windows untouched.

"This is a little different," said Ogden Police Lt. Scott Sangberg, adding that he has seen nothing like this church-focused crime wave in the 26 years he has lived in Ogden. "Does it look a little suspicious that all these things are happening since Proposition 8? It sure does, but we don't have any witnesses to help pinpoint, accuse or even make an arrest."

Juan Becerra, local spokesman with the Federal Bureau of Investigations, said the FBI is trying to determine whether the crimes qualify as civil-rights violations. "There's been too much that has happened in a short period of time," he said. Recent crimes include mysterious packages of white powder being mailed to LDS temples in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, as well as a Catholic Knights of Columbus printing press in Connecticut; a burning Book of Mormon

left on the steps of an LDS chapel in Colorado; a plant set afire inside Weber State University's LDS Institute building; a junior high seminary evacuated after a mysterious letter arrived; and vandals shooting BBs through the glass doors of at least six LDS meeting houses through Weber and Davis counties as well as one in Sandy City.

Some local Mormon leaders downplay the events.

"We don't have a lot of vandalism out there, so it was a bit of a surprise," said Bishop Lance Garner of the vandalized Oak Forest Young Adults Ward in Layton. "But it wasn't a big deal in my ward.

"Proposition 8 passed through our minds, and we wondered about the connection, but quite honestly, I don't think anybody knows that for sure."

Others are more inclined to blame politics.

Bishop Richard Lambert, who meets at the vandalized South Ogden Highlands Ward, said some members of his congregation assume a Proposition 8 tie.

"The timing is just suspicious," he said. "We, as members of the church, just exercised our political will, and it's unfortunate that they're blaming one organization."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to comment on the recent crimes in Utah, but recently released a statement calling directly on its political opponents to calm the attacks.

"Attacks on churches and intimidation of people of faith have no place in civil discourse over controversial issues."

Many members of the gay community likewise are urging calm until the authorities can find those responsible. Directors of the Utah Pride Center and Equality Utah -- which work with gay, lesbian and transgender causes -- said they are "deeply troubled" by the crime wave.

"Our hearts go out to the church members that are afraid to go to church as a result of those attacks," said Utah Pride Center Executive Director Valerie Larabee. "It would be natural to draw a conclusion that it is the gay community that's doing this, but that's a very dangerous conclusion."

Larabee said there has been a rise in energy among people who support equality since Proposition 8 passed, but she regrets that many are using their emotions in what she called negative ways.

Equality Utah Executive Director Mike Thompson said his organization is working to find commonalities with the LDS church and push for incremental advances.

Although there has been an abundance of vandalism at Mormon wardhouses in recent weeks, it's just a part of the picture. Statistics from the state Bureau of Criminal Identification show hundreds of crimes are reported on religious properties around the state from year to year -- from kidnappings and aggravated assaults to intimidation and burglary.

In 2006, police agencies statewide reported more than 300 incidents of vandalism at churches, Synagogues, temples and other religious buildings.

The FBI reported 15 religion-related hate crimes in Utah in 2007 and nine related to sexual orientation, up from an equal six and six in 2006. The FBI investigated more hate crimes involving sexual orientation than religion in the vast majority of U.S. states.

If criminals are caught for church vandalism, they could be prosecuted under Utah's new hate crime law, which legislators crafted in 2007 to harden punishments for criminals who intend to "terrorize or intimidate."

Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said the law's application would simply depend on the facts and circumstances of the case. Prosecutors would have to show the criminals' intent was to intimidate members of the church congregations.

"It would be based upon both what they say in interviews, what they tell others about what they did, and what message was communicated," Rawlings said.

A hate crime conviction would stiffen misdemeanor charges. It would add an aggravating factor to a felony crime, sending a signal to judges and pardons and parole boards.

While Utah has been the focus of the recent rash of LDS-church vandalism, California saw heated protests and sporadic crimes sweep across that state.

But for the most part, California police said Prop-8 related crime there subsided after the election.

"Anytime you have a huge group of people who feel very strongly about an issue, a few will cross the line, unfortunately," said Sacramento Sgt. Matt Young. "It's unfortunate that it occurs on either side because they're not representative of the majority."

As far as Utah's crime spree goes, some LDS church members are more closely monitoring their ward houses for the time being.

Said Sangberg: "This is one of those political hot potatoes that can either stay hot for a long time, or it can begin to go away shortly. It all depends on the atmosphere or climate of the country."