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Man Pleads Guilty in Church Arson Attack Intended to Halt Drag Queen Story Hour

A young Ohio man has pleaded guilty to attempting to burn down Community Church of Chesterland in Ohio in an attempt to halt the church from hosting its Drag Queen Story Hour.

Aimenn D. Penny, 20, threw two Molotov cocktails at the church on March 25 the weekend before two planned drag queen events. He is slated to be sentenced in January, and could spend up to 20 years in prison for violating the Church Arson Prevention Act with a mandatory sentence of 10 years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The federal law was enacted in 1996 following an outbreak of racially motivated church burnings.

Penny’s attack failed to halt the drag queen story hour for children, which went ahead as scheduled on April 1.

ChurchLeaders reported that Penny was a member of White Lives Matter, which the FBI has labeled as “a group with racist, pro-Nazi, and homophobic views.”

Penny’s cell phone showed he was on the church property in the early morning hours of the attack. Officers arresting Penny found gas cans, a gas mask, and Nazi memorabilia at his house.

He was charged with “one count of using fire to commit a federal felony, one count of malicious use of explosive materials and one count of possessing a destructive device.”

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He admitted his crime to the FBI:

Penny stated that he was trying to protect children and stop the drag show event. Penny stated that night he became more and more angry 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.”

The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force worked alongside local law enforcement to identify and bring federal charges against Penny.

Six state legislatures have attempted to ban drag shows and other forms of adult entertainment, but these laws have run into legal resistance amid the concern that they infringe on Americans’ First Amendment rights.

Community Church of Chesterland is affiliated with the United Church of Christ denomination and identifies as an “Open and Affirming Church” that welcomes people who identify as LGBTQ. Chesterland is a town of 7,000 east of Cleveland.

The church expressed thanks to investigators and forgiveness for Penny, but “would like to see him prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law as a way to send a message to other like minded people and groups that violence as a form of coercion to advance any kind of agenda is unacceptable in 2023.”

The Anti-Defamation League says White Lives Matter is a racist movement that emerged in 2015 in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Main photo: Photo of April 1 Drag Queen Story Hour via Community Church of Chesterland social media

Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.