'Liberal churches' are potential targets during inauguration protests, UCC warns

First Congregational United Church of Christ of Madison, Wisconsin. | (Photo: First Congregational UCC)

Leaders of the United Church of Christ are encouraging members not to gather at church buildings this week after receiving reports that liberal-leaning mainline Protestant denominations could be targeted during the week of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. 

In a statement posted to Twitter late Friday night, the mainline denomination of over 5,000 churches warned of possible threats that have come to the attention of conference ministers in the wake of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol during a pro-Trump rally held to oppose the election results and voter fraud. 

As churches nationwide celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day and urge members to pray for the new president this week, UCC leaders called on congregational leaders and members to be vigilant.

The denomination specified inauguration day, Jan. 20, and the Sunday before election day, Jan. 17, as more concerning days.  

“While we are hesitant to raise the alarm and/or overreact, recent events compel us to inform you about what we are hearing regarding possible threats that have come to our attention,” the denomination explained. 

“There are reports that ‘liberal’ churches will become targets of possible attacks in the coming week, with dates of Jan.17 and Jan. 20 featured more prominently.”

On Saturday afternoon, the denomination released a joint statement from three of its elected officers — the Revs. John Dorhauer, Karen Georgia and Traci Blackmon. The leaders explained that a couple of conference ministers and a UCC ecumenical partner received “credible threats” against government buildings and liberal institutions. 

“Mainline churches are among the entities that have been identified by law enforcement as potential targets,” the UCC statement reads. “Erring on the side of caution and noting the previous attacks on our churches in the West and, in recent weeks, against like-minded churches in D.C.,  we decided to ask our congregations to be extra vigilant going into inauguration week. We do not want to cause undue alarm, but if the threats prove credible, this would be difficult to reconcile.”

Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the 9,000-congregation Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, also acknowledged the online rumors or threats in a statement on social media Saturday. 

“We’ve heard online chatter about possible threats to places of worship. There is no evidence from FBI or others that this is true,” she warned. “Of course take care, but these vague threats are meant to spread fear. Tomorrow we will worship hear the gospel pray for peace. That is our witness.”

Some churches have followed their denomination’s encouragement to halt in-person gatherings, including a UCC church in Suquamish, Washington, which postponed a peace vigil planned in the wake of the Capitol riot. 

“Our service today was all about Martin Luther King and you cannot overcome darkness with more darkness, you need light and you cannot overcome hate, with more hate, you need love,” said church volunteer Claudia Stuntebeck in an interview with a local NBC affiliate. 

In Chicago’s Oak Lawn neighborhood, Pilgrim Faith United Church of Christ closed down Saturday through the end of this week after receiving a warning from UCC national leadership. 

"Because we have deemed a liberal congregation, a liberal type of denomination and church, that there are threats to other churches, other UCC churches," Pastor James Bowman Harris told ABC 7

Last week, it was reported that the FBI warned of armed protests planned in all 50 state capitols on the days leading up to the Jan. 20 inauguration, which has led to heightened security arrangements nationwide. 

The allegations of threats against left-leaning congregations come after historically black churches were vandalized and had their Black Lives Matter flags destroyed by far-right protesters during a pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., in December. 

FBI Director Christopher Wray spoke last Thursday during a briefing about the agency’s monitoring of threats or calls for armed protest in the days leading up to the inaugural events, such as those aimed at “various other targets.”

Wray did not discuss churches specifically but explained that there is “extensive amount of concerning online chatter” concerning “a number of events surrounding the inauguration.” 

“Together with our partners, we evaluate those threats and what kind of resources to deploy against them,” Wray said. “Right now, we‘re tracking calls for potential armed protests and activity leading up to the inauguration.”

In 2018, the signing of the Protecting Religious Affiliated Institutions Act amended the federal criminal code to "broaden the scope" of acts considered to be illegal when churches are defaced, damaged or destroyed. The new law also increased the criminal penalty for actions resulting in the damaging of religious property that exceeds $5,000. Such crimes are punishable by fines and a prison term of up to three years in prison.

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