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White supremacist tried to burn down a pro-LGBTQ+ church. He’s going to jail for a long time.

Photo: Public Domain

Aimenn D. Penny, the 20-year-old member of an Ohio White Lives Matter group who attempted to firebomb an LGBTQ+ friendly church last March, has been sentenced to 18 years in prison.

In October, Penny pleaded guilty to violating the Church Arson Prevention Act—a federal hate crime—and to using fire and explosives to commit a felony. He admitted to throwing Molotov cocktails at the Community Church of Chesterland in Chester, Ohio, on March 25. The attack, which left scorch marks on the church’s door, was in response to drag queen story time events planned for April 1.

“Penny stated that he was trying to protect children and stop the drag show event,” according to a criminal complaint. “Penny described using bottles from his bedroom and detailed the ingredients and steps he used to build and use the devices. Penny stated that night, he became angrier after watching internet videos of news feeds and drag shows in France and decided to attack the church. Penny stated that he would have felt better if the Molotov cocktails were more effective and burned the entire church to the ground.”

Following his March 31 arrest, Penny was housed at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, Ohio, where prosecutors say he wrote letters and a manifesto in which he expressed no remorse for his crimes. The letters, which Penny attempted to send to members of neo-Nazi extremist groups White Lives Matter Ohio and the Blood Tribe, expressed “transphobic and anti-Semtic hatred” and contained calls for further violence targeting a specific drag event.

Far-right extremist groups have increasingly targeted events featuring drag performers in recent years—likely spurred on by anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and false narratives around drag queens performing “sexually explicit” shows in front of children promulgated by anti-LGBTQ+ social media accounts like Libs of TikTok.

As The Hill notes, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue released a report in June that tracked more than 200 anti-drag mobilizations by local extremist groups in the U.S. between June 2022 and May of last year.

In their sentencing memo, federal prosecutors noted that church burnings “have a long and sordid history in the United States.”

“Burning a church is as potent a symbol of hate as burning a cross on a lawn or leaving a hanging noose,” they wrote. “When Defendant Aimenn Penny threw Molotov cocktails at the Community Church of Chesterland, he joined this shameful history of hatred and attacked the heart of the local community, trying to intimidate and frighten those who disagreed with him.”

“Aimenn Penny will spend the next 18 years in prison because he committed crimes fueled by hate, attempting to burn down a church because its members supported the LGBTQI+ community,” U.S. Attorney Rebecca C. Lutzko for the Northern District of Ohio said in a press release Tuesday. “Hate crimes like Penny’s hurt not only the individual target, but the entire community, causing people to fear attack based on who they love and undermining the sense of safety within places of worship. Violent, bias-motivated extremism has no place in our country, and our office will aggressively prosecute those who commit such crimes.”

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said that prosecutors hope that “this significant sentence sends a clear and resounding message that this type of hate-fueled attack against a church will not be tolerated in our country.”

“This defendant tried to burn down a church simply because its members created space for and provided support to the LGBTQ+ community,” Clarke added. “The Justice Department will vigorously investigate and prosecute such senseless, bias-motivated violence against people exercising their constitutionally protected right to practice their religion and express their beliefs.”

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