Ohio man pleads guilty to trying to burn down church because of its drag shows

In announcing that an Ohio man has pleaded guilty to trying to burn down a church planning to host drag shows, U.S. Justice Department officials said they would "aggressively prosecute criminals who threaten" Americans' rights to freely express themselves and worship as they choose. File Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI

Oct. 24 (UPI) -- An Ohio man has pleaded guilty to using fire and explosives in an attempt to burn down a church planning to host drag shows.

In court documents, prosecutors said Aimenn D. Penny, 20, of Alliance, violated the Church Arson Prevention Act when he made Molotov cocktails and drove to the Community Church of Chesterland about a half hour east of Cleveland on May 25. According to court documents, Penny went to the church "hoping to burn it to the ground."

He later admitted to being angry about the church's plans to host two drag shows the following weekend.

On Monday, he admitted to using force through fire and explosives, intending to obstruct church congregants in expressing their religious beliefs.

"Attempting to burn down the Community Church of Chesterland for their support of the LGBTQI+ community is reprehensible," said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in a statement.

"There is no room in this country for such bias-motivated violence and terror, and the Justice Department will continue to protect all Americans in their free exercise of religious beliefs by vigorously prosecuting those who target houses of worship," Clarke said. "Our churches should be safe havens for all people, not sites subjected to violence motivated by hate and vitriol."

Penny faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison for the violation of the Church Arson Prevention Act and a 10-year mandatory prison sentence.

In addition to the felony, Penny also 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. Charges are pending for those crimes, too.

"Mr. Penny admitted to attempting to burn down a church because he did not like the way congregants chose to express their beliefs," said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department's National Security Division. "Such acts of extremist violence are antithetical to core American values of freedom of expression and worship and we will not tolerate those who would use force to deny our citizens the free exercise of their rights."

Court documents said by pleading guilty, Penny admitted attempting to burn down the church because he disagreed with their stance on LGBTQI+ rights and the drag events that were planned.

"Violence is never appropriate to settle differences in beliefs," said U.S. Attorney Rebecca C. Lutzko for the Northern District of Ohio. "All members of our community are entitled to peacefully assemble, worship, and express themselves freely, without fear of violence or intimidation, and the United States Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Ohio will aggressively prosecute criminals who threaten that right."

The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force and its Cleveland office worked with local Ohio law enforcement to identify and bring federal charges against Penny, according to Justice Department officials.

"He committed these despicable acts in an effort to terrorize and intimidate a religious institution's free expression, and he should face accountability for these crimes," said Executive Assistant Director Larissa L. Knapp of the FBI's National Security Branch.

Penny's sentencing has been scheduled for Jan. 29.