Ohio church sues ‘White Lives Matter’ members over arson attack in response to drag show

Pastor Jess Peacock of the Community Church of Chesterland, Ohio, a United Church of Christ congregation, speaking during a March 2024 worship service.
Pastor Jess Peacock of the Community Church of Chesterland, Ohio, a United Church of Christ congregation, speaking during a March 2024 worship service. | Screengrab: YouTube/Community Church of Chesterland

A church in Ohio that suffered an arson attack last year after it agreed to host drag shows has sued the guilty party and members of the extremist group he is affiliated with for damages.

Earlier this year, 20-year-old Aimenn Penny was sentenced to 18 years in prison for trying to destroy the Community Church of Chesterland with Molotov cocktails for hosting a drag show.

The congregation, affiliated with the theologically liberal United Church of Christ denomination, filed a complaint against Penny and members of the group White Lives Matter Ohio in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, on Wednesday. 

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The church is seeking compensatory and punitive damages over the organization's involvement in the attack on the congregation, which was a violation of their civil rights. 

The defendants are accused of six counts: "Conspiracy to Interfere With Civil Rights," violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances & Places of Religious Worship Act, a FACE Act violation specifically directed at Penny, "Civil Liability for Vandalism, Desecration, or Ethnic Intimidation," "Trespass to Land," and "Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress."

The plaintiffs are represented by the law firm Jones Day and the Anti-Defamation League, a progressive Jewish American advocacy organization that monitors antisemitic groups and other extremist elements.

The lawsuit describes White Lives Matter Ohio as the state chapter of a national network that "requires members to coordinate with each other on activism events and encourages alignment with similar extremist groups, such as Blood Tribe, in order to amplify their shared message of hatred."

"These members attended several White Lives Matter Ohio rallies and 'activism' events culminating in the March 2023 attack on Community Church," the complaint contends.

"These rallies and 'activism' leading up to the attack on the Community Church were directed at others engaged in advancing racial or social justice similar to the practices of the Community Church members, and demonstrate Defendants' increasingly hateful and violent conspiracy to deprive Plaintiffs from practicing their diverse and inclusive religion."

ADL Senior Director of National Litigation James Pasch said in a statement Wednesday that the lawsuit "meticulously documents how members of a local White Lives Matter chapter conspired to deprive members of the Community Church of Chesterland of their church property."

"Their resultant actions in targeting a community church with a hate crime are not just morally abhorrent, they are a clear violation of federal civil rights and property law," Pasch continued.

In March 2023, Penny threw two Molotov cocktails at the Community Church in an effort to burn down the sanctuary in response to the congregation's decision to host a drag show. While the property was damaged, the drag shows went on as scheduled.

Penny was arrested and charged by the end of the month, facing a count of possessing a destructive device and a count of malicious use of explosive materials.

A joint effort by the FBI Cleveland Joint Terrorism Task Force and the Chester Township Police Department led to the arrest, according to Special Agent in Charge Gregory Nelsen of the FBI Cleveland Field Office.

"The FBI leveraged its task force and its specialized resources to identify, locate and subsequently arrest the subject earlier today," said Nelsen in a statement last year.

"We thank the collaborative work and strong partnership of the Chester Township Police and Lake and Geauga County local authorities who assisted."

Penny pleaded guilty last October to violating the Church Arson Prevention Act and using fire and explosives to attempt to commit a felony. He was sentenced to 18 years in January.

"This sentence holds Mr. Penny accountable for carrying out violence against an Ohio church because he disagreed with the way congregants chose to express their beliefs," said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the U.S. Justice Department's National Security Division in a statement earlier this year.

"Such acts of extremist violence have no place in our communities and the Justice Department is committed to bringing to justice those who would use or threaten violence to prevent their fellow citizens from freely exercising their fundamental rights." 

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