Arson damages
gay cleric’s church

Honolulu fire investigators said a fire yesterday morning at a Makiki church headed by an openly gay pastor was intentionally set, which several civil rights groups called a hate crime.

Neither local nor federal law enforcement officials would say whether they considered the fire a hate crime, a federal offense encompassing violent acts motivated by bias against a victim's perceived race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability.

Investigators for the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were at the scene but would not give details.

"We cannot confirm or deny the existence of an investigation," said Arnold Laanui, spokesman for the FBI.

The blaze started at 4:39 a.m. at the First Christian Church at 1516 Kewalo St. and burned a room on the first floor, causing an estimated damage of $60,000 to the building and its contents, according to fire Capt. Emmit Kane. Firefighters brought the blaze under control about 20 minutes later.

The church is headed by the Rev. Vaughn Beckman, who has defended the rights of gays and lesbians. Though Beckman would not say whether he thought this was a hate crime, he said he had his suspicions because the fire was intentionally set.

"No church deserves this," Beckman said. "I'm pretty much in shock over how this could be allowed to happen.

"It's absolutely disturbing that when we stand up for justice for people that we have to be violated this way."

Beckman was most recently in the public eye earlier this summer when he and others protested the city's decision to exclude gay groups from the city-funded Family Day Parade, sponsored by the Hawaii Christian Coalition.

Beckman stood on the sidelines of the parade and held up a sign that said, "Bigotry and Hate Are Not Family Values."

He, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, has a pending federal lawsuit against the city for its exclusion of gay individuals from the Family Day Parade in July.

ACLU Executive Director Vanessa Chong said she would not be surprised if the fire was linked to the lawsuit as a hate crime, adding that "this is what happens when the city says it's OK to hate people."

Chong highlighted Beckman's involvement with the ACLU's lawsuit against the city and demanded that the fire be aggressively investigated.

"Hate crimes are heinous. Especially with Hawaii being so diverse, we must respond assertively when hate crimes appear," she said.

Other civil rights group members agreed.

The Civil Unions -- Civil Rights Movement released a statement that said it deplored "the senseless act of arson against a gay-affirming church." The group called for all citizens to become more aware of violent acts directed toward the gay community.

Beckman said the damage the fire caused to his church will take at least six months to repair.

"We as a congregation must stand strong and move forward, and we cannot let this ugly situation ruin our spirit of hope for the future," he said.


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