Federal Crimes Blog

18 U.S. Code § 247 - Damage to Religious Property

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding | Nov 17, 2023

Title 18 U.S. Code 247 damage to religious property; obstruction of persons in the free exercise of religious beliefs is an essential law for the freedom of religious expression in the United States as it protects churches and religious institutions from deliberate damage.

Under the Church Arson Prevention Act, intentional damage to religious property is considered a hate crime. Simply put, this federal law prohibits deliberate defacement, damage, or destruction of any religious real property based on the spiritual, racial, or ethnic characteristics of that property,

The law also prohibits intentional obstruction by force, the threat of force, or attempts to obstruct anyone from enjoying their free exercise of religious beliefs.

18 U.S. Code § 247 - Damage to Religious Property
It's a federal crime to intentionally damage religious property when it's motivated by hatred.

Notably, suppose the intent of the crime is motivated by religious hatred. In that case, it has to be proven that the religious real property has a sufficient connection with interstate or foreign commerce. However, if the intent of the crime is racially motivated, then there is no requirement to satisfy the interstate or foreign commerce clause.

18 U.S.C. 247 says, “(a) Whoever, in any of the circumstances referred to in subsection (b) of this section—

(1) intentionally defaces, damages, or destroys any religious real property because of the religious character of that property or attempts to do so, or

(2) intentionally obstructs, by force or threat of force, including by threat of force against religious real property, any person in the enjoyment of that person's free exercise of religious beliefs or attempts to do so shall be punished as provided in subsection (d).

(b) The circumstances referred to in subsection (a) are that the offense is in or affects interstate or foreign commerce.

(e) The United States shall undertake no prosecution of any offense described in this section except upon the certification in writing of the Attorney General or his designee that, in his judgment, a prosecution by the United States is in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice.

(f) “Religious real property” means any church, synagogue, mosque, religious cemetery, or other religious real property, including fixtures or religious objects contained within a place of religious worship or real property owned or leased by a nonprofit, religiously affiliated organization.”

Religious Property Damage – Quick Facts

There are some essential facts you should know about 18 U.S. Code 247 damage to religious property law, such as the following:

  • To be considered a hate crime, it must be proven the property was intentionally explicitly damaged due to its religious nature.
  • The Church Arson Prevention Act could make this offense a hate crime.
  • The damaged property must be designated a religious property to be charged under federal law.
  • Federal laws cover churches, mosques, synagogues, religious cemeteries, and other religious property.
  • Title 18 U.S.C. 247 embodies the Church Arson Prevention Act, enacted by Congress in 1996.
  • This law prohibits anyone from Intentionally defacing, damaging, or destroying religious property based on religious character.
  • It's also a crime to intentionally deface or damage religious property due to the color, race, or ethnicity of anyone associated with the property.
  • The law also prohibits intentionally obstructing, inhibiting, or interfering with the lawful exercise of religious beliefs at the property.
  • All States have separate laws protecting religious property.
  • This law falls under federal jurisdiction if it affects interstate commerce or is racially or ethnically motivated.
  • Prosecutors must press charges within seven years after the commission of the alleged crime due to the statute of limitations.

What Are the Related Federal Statutes?

18 U.S. Code Chapter 13 Civil Rights has several federal laws that are related to 18 U.S. Code 247 Damage to religious property; obstruction of persons in the free exercise of religious beliefs, including the following:

  • 18 U.S.C. 241 – Conspiracy against rights;
  • 18 U.S.C. 242 - Deprivation of rights under color of law;
  • 18 U.S.C. 243 - Exclusion of jurors on account of race or color;
  • 18 U.S.C. 244 - Discrimination against a person wearing a uniform of armed forces;
  • 18 U.S.C. 245 - Federally protected activities;
  • 18 U.S.C. 246 - Deprivation of relief benefits;
  • 18 U.S.C. 248 - Freedom of access to clinic entrances;
  • 18 U.S.C. 249 - Hate crime acts;
  • 18 U.S.C. 250 - Penalties for civil rights offenses for sexual misconduct.

What Are the Penalties for 18 U.S.C. 247?

If convicted of violating section 247, the penalties will vary depending on the case details, the severity of the damage, and if anyone is hurt in the process. For example, federal prison penalties could range from one to 40 years. If someone is killed, the death penalty could be imposed by the judge.18 U.S.C. 247 lists a wide range of possible penalties, such as the following:

  • For general incidents of damage, it's a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than one year in jail and fines up to $100,000;
  • If the damage exceeds $5,000, the maximum penalty is three years in prison and fines up to $250,000;
  • If a bodily injury or if a dangerous weapon is used or threatened to be used, the penalty is up to 20 years in prison and fines up to $250,000;
  • If a bodily injury occurs as a result of using explosives or fire, the maximum penalty is 40 years in prison and fines up to $250,000;
  • If the incident results in someone's death, the maximum sentence includes life in prison or the death penalty.

Simply put, punishment varies from one-year imprisonment and a fine or both, and if bodily injury results to anyone, including any public safety officer, and the violation is using fire or an explosive, a fine under or imprisonment of not more than forty years.

If the acts include the use, attempted use, or threatened use of a dangerous weapon, you could be fined and imprisonment for up to twenty years.

Suppose the acts include kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill. In that case, the penalties include a fine and imprisonment for any term of years or life or sentenced to death.

What Are the Legal Defenses?

Since damaging religious property could be considered a hate crime, federal prosecutors will have to prove the crucial element of intent. This means they must demonstrate that your actions were intentional, racially motivated, or directed against that form of religious expression, which is often challenging.

Perhaps we can show you had no religious or racial motive. Maybe we can negotiate to have the charges reduced or dismissed.

Contact our law firm for a free case review and to discuss legal options if you have been charged with a federal crime. We have enough experience with the federal criminal justice system to craft an effective strategy to give you the best chance at a favorable outcome. Contact us by phone or fill out the contact form for a free case evaluation. The Hedding Law Firm has offices in Los Angeles, California.

Related Content:

About the Author

Ronald D. Hedding

What Makes Ronald Hedding Uniquely Qualified To Represent You? I've been practicing criminal defense for almost 30 years and have handled thousands of cases, including all types of state and federal sex crime cases. All consultations are discreet and confidential.

Contact Us Today

Hedding Law Firm is committed to answering your questions about Federal Criminal Defense issues in Los Angeles and Encino California. We'll gladly discuss your case with you at your convenience. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.