Hate crime charges filed in May fire that destroyed Arizona Episcopal church

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Oct 10, 2023

The shell of St. Stephen’s stands after the May 22 fire that destroyed the church. Photo: Jennifer Reddall

[Episcopal News Service] A grand jury in Tucson added hate crime charges to the others filed against Eric Ridenour, the man accused of burning St. Stephen’s Church in Douglas, Arizona,  and the neighboring First Presbyterian Church on May 22.

According to information provided by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona, additional investigations and court testimony led the grand jury on Oct. 6 to allege in a new indictment that Ridenour “intentionally started the fires in both churches because of his hostility toward their progressive doctrines, particularly their practice of having women and members of the LGBTQ community serve as church leaders.”

In addition to two counts of arson that were filed after his arrest on May 23, the new indictment includes charges of arson of property used in interstate commerce, obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs by fire and using fire to commit federal felony. If convicted, each count carries multiple-year sentences.

In response to the new charges, Arizona Bishop Jennifer Reddell on Oct. 6 issued a press release in which she said that the diocese, like The Episcopal Church, “does not amend its practices on the basis of violence toward us.” She added, “We will continue to follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the one who called marginalized people into loving relationships with God and their neighbor, and mirror that invitation, welcome, and inclusion to all people.”

She noted that while the new indictment wasn’t unexpected, it nonetheless “brings with it grief at a world in which individuals resort to violence in a vain attempt to make the world conform to their own biases.”

Douglas is a town of about 16,500 people on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Members of Episcopal churches, in Arizona and elsewhere, hold a broad range of understanding regarding the inclusion of all people in our leadership; but our church laws and policies are absolutely clear that we do not discriminate on the basis of gender identity or sexuality,” Reddall said. “Living into the reality of our nondiscrimination policies is still a work in progress. But it is work we are committed to engage.”

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.