An Indiana man hostile to organized Christianity has been sentenced to 42 years in prison for arson attacks at more than two dozen U.S. churches in the mid- and late-1990s.

Jay Scott Ballinger, 38, had confessed to attacks on more than 25 churches in at least eight states in the southern and Midwest United States. A self-described "missionary of Lucifer", Ballinger faces further charges for five church fires in Georgia.

He was sentenced November 14 after pleading guilty in July to 20 counts of destroying church property. He was also ordered to pay $3.6 million in restitution.

Ballinger's crimes were part of what was labeled a national epidemic of church fires in the 1990s. Hundreds of such fires were set, many of them at churches with mainly black congregations, leading to claims by the National Council of Churches (NCC) that they were racially motivated. Partly because of the NCC campaign, the attacks became a subject of intense discussion across the U.S., prompting expressions of concern by President Bill Clinton, and the establishment of the National Church Arson Task Force.

Ballinger who is white, attacked both mainly black and mainly white churches. He carried out more acts of arson than any other church arsonist, authorities said.

Also convicted in the case was Ballinger's girlfriend, Angela Wood, 25, who on November 16 was sentenced to almost 17 years in prison for acting as an accomplice. Earlier she told the court that Ballinger had beaten her, threatening her if she did not help him set the fires.

Rose Johnson-Mackey, director of research and programs for the interdenominational advocacy group, National Coalition for Burned Churches, told ENI that her organization was pleased with the guilty plea. She praised the work of federal and state authorities. But she added there were unanswered questions about the case. She doubted that Ballinger and his girlfriend could have committed the crimes without assistance, given the wide geographic range of their targets. The churches targeted were spread across several states, from Indiana and Ohio in the Midwest, to Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina in the South, along with California.

"I don't see how it could not be [that others were not involved]," Johnson-Mackey said. "Knowing the geography, how could this be done with just two individuals and without any help? It doesn't make any sense."

Many of the churches, Johnson-Mackey said, were in extremely remote and isolated areas. "You'd have to do a lot of work to find some of these churches."

Authorities had initially downplayed any connection between the fires, but then came to the conclusion they had been committed by the same person. "The question we have is whether we are just getting the tip of the iceberg," Johnson-Mackey said. An investigation conducted by her organization had indicated that there were 826 church arson attacks in the United States from 1995 to 1997, and up to 700 since 1998.

Copyright © 2000 ENI

Related Elsewhere

Read Christianity Today's stories about Ballinger's arrest in 1999 or a similar satanic arsonist in Norway.

Previous media coverage of this story includes:

42-year Sentence For Man Who Burned 26 ChurchesChicago Tribune (Nov. 15, 2000)

Georgia Woman Sentenced for Arsons—Associated Press (Nov. 15, 2000)

Man sentenced in burning of 26 churchesThe Boston Globe (Nov. 15, 2000)

Stripper Sentenced in Church Arsons—ABC News (Nov. 15, 2000)