The FBI is investigating after an explosive device was thrown at a southern California church on Saturday, weeks after it was threatened with an arson attack over its pastor’s views and harsh rhetoric toward the LGBT community.
The bombing, which involved an improvised explosive device, broke the windows of the First Works Baptist Church in the Los Angeles County town of El Monte.
The local news outlet KTLA5 reported that no one was injured but that 14 homes and eight apartments within the vicinity of the church were temporarily evacuated.
“An improvised explosive device was apparently detonated here at the church, causing some damage,” El Monte Police Chief David Reynoso was quoted as saying.
Lt. Christopher Cano told reporters that officers arrived at the scene and found smoke coming from the windows of the building.
“It appeared that the walls to the church had been vandalized as well as all the windows,” Cano said, according to The San Gabriel Valley Tribune. “[The windows] appeared at first to be smashed, then we realized that the windows were not smashed, that they had actually blown out from some type of explosion.”
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said that it is too early into the investigation to state if the attack could be considered a “hate crime.”
“As to the question of whether this was a hate crime, that’s always going to be considered among the theories when a house of worship is attacked,” Eimiller said, according to the newspaper. “But it would be premature to confirm any motive at this time, and we are not ruling any other motive out.”
Pastor Bruce Mejia had earlier told police about a threat of arson the church received on social media.
“Some of those within that LGBTQ group caught one of my sermons that are online and they’ve just been harassing ever since, trying to get me out of El Monte, trying to get me and myself and my church out of El Monte by signing a petition,” Mejia said at the time, according to The Press-Telegram.
The pastor added that while the church filed a complaint with authorities, “we’re not going to pursue it. … We feel it’s not worth it. We’re not the violent ones here.”
First Works had been the site of protests in recent weeks due to opposition to Mejia’s preachings on sexuality and marriage.
Reynoso told the media that it is not “fair” at this stage of the investigation to “speculate” on whether anyone involved in protests against the church was involved in the attack.
“I don’t even want to talk about the protests because it wouldn’t be fair in any way, shape or form to link the two together,” the police chief said, according to The Los Angeles Times.
“We cannot speculate that anyone involved in previous demonstrations is connected to or involved with this in any way.”
The group, Keep El Monte Friendly, which organized the protests, canceled a demonstration scheduled for Sunday outside the church.
“We understand that what they preach can make people upset. However, we would never promote, encourage or condone any violence or acts of harm,” the group said in a statement. “Our intent is to unite the community and keep El Monte a safe place for all regardless of gender identity, race or sexual orientation.”
First Works issued two posts Saturday featuring two Bible verses. The first verse was Psalm 9:17, which reads: “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.” The second verse, Romans 12:19, states: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath; for it is written: Vengeance is mine. I will repay, saith the Lord.”
The online petition launched three weeks ago calls on El Monte Mayor Jessica Ancona to not only recognize First Works as a hate group but to also “take them out of our city.” The petition is supported by over 15,000 people.
“The city of El Monte and its constituents do not condone this ‘church’ and want their members to know that they cannot congregate here,” the petition reads.
In June 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a far-left civil rights organization, listed First Works as one of 88 “hate groups” in California, labeling the church “anti-LGBTQ.”
SPLC also reported in 2019 that Mejia participated in a “Make America Straight Again” conference and called for government executions of members of the LGBT community.
Although there is no official word yet on the motive in Saturday’s bombing, this is not the first time that a Christian organization listed by the SPLC as a “hate group” has been attacked.
In August 2012, the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the Christian conservative lobbying organization Family Research Council was attacked by a gunman who later told investigators that he chose FRC as a target after visiting the SPLC website. At the time, FRC President Tony Perkins accused SPLC of being “reckless in labeling organizations 'hate' groups because they disagree with them on public policy.”